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Guest Post: How The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is Using Tuition to Incentivize Graduation in Four Years

May 31, 2022

Although the six-year graduation rate has become a standard metric for evaluating student success in higher education, that metric should not be regarded as a “gold standard” for at least two reasons. First, every year of college beyond four, the minimum for most degrees, adds cost and usually student debt as well. Not only has student debt become a lightning rod for higher education that unites members of both political parties, but it is also a major barrier to college completion for low-income students like those who make up most of the student body at UTRGV. Second, the longer students take to graduate, the less likely they are to graduate. Timely graduation usually means higher graduation rates. Just as the six-year graduation rate should not be regarded as the “gold standard”, the four-year graduation rate should not be avoided as a standard for the same two reasons. Four years is within reach with the help of institutions of higher education.  

In the planning for UTRGV, we decided to confront the issue of time to graduation through our tuition structure. As a result, we devised a tuition program that would incentivize timely graduation in several ways. First, all students are automatically enrolled in our tuition guarantee plan; there is no contract nor opt-in requirement.  We guarantee a tuition and mandatory fee rate for four years: no tuition or mandatory fee increase affects any currently enrolled student if that student graduates in four years. However, as we tell students right up front, if they do not graduate in four years, their tuition and mandatory fees will likely increase. Second, students are encouraged and incentivized to enroll in fifteen hours a semester – what it takes to achieve the 120 hours needed to complete most degrees in Texas. We cap our tuition and mandatory fees at twelve credit hours a semester, which means that every credit hour above twelve is free for students. Full-time students, then, get at least three free credit hours per semester, and when they graduate, they will have received the equivalent of at least one semester’s worth of free tuition and mandatory fees. Some ambitious, hard-working students, of course, take more than fifteen hours, and benefit even more from these incentives. Students who take eighteen hours, for instance, graduate in three and a half years with the equivalent of a year’s free tuition and mandatory fees.

In addition to our tuition guarantee plan and twelve-hour cap on tuition and mandatory fees, we offer several institutional merit scholarships and need-based grant programs that encourage timely graduation by requiring fifteen credit hours of enrollment. One such program is the UTRGV Tuition Advantage program, which covers the cost of tuition and mandatory fees for qualifying families with an income of $125,000 or less. Although this and other programs are funded primarily through institutional revenue, we were recently able to increase the family income threshold from $95,000 to $125,000 through a generous donation from the University Texas System. The use of institutional revenues for programs that encourage timely graduation is an investment in our students that will have a lasting impact not only on them, their families and communities, but also on the entire Rio Grande Valley.   

We are still a “new” institution (we began offering classes Fall 2015), but the results of the tuition incentives are encouraging. Although it took a couple of years for students and their families, advisors, and faculty to fully understand the potential impact of the incentives, almost half of our entering freshmen are registering for 15 hours now. The number of students taking above twelve hours a semester has increased by over 16% and our graduation rates, which are beginning to track increases in the number of students taking 15 hours, have increased by 5% in five years. Just as important, our students are graduating with low debt loads. According to U.S. News and World Report, UTRGV ranks 2nd among public universities in graduating students with the least debt. While we still have work to do, we think the focus on four-year graduation rates and on incentives that promote them will continue to help us improve our student success and graduation rates in ways that do not require students to mortgage their futures.
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Guy Bailey is president of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where Janna Arney serves as deputy president and Magdalena Hinojosa serves as vice president of strategic enrollment and student affairs.

  • Degree Completion & Student Success

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