UTSA nearly triples graduation rate in over a decade by creating model for first-generation, transfer students
Over the last decade, the University of Texas at San Antonio has nearly tripled the number of students who graduate within four years.
Back in 2010, the graduation rate for students attaining their degree within four years was 6%, but now that number has risen to 32%. There are several initiatives behind this growth and one is the Graduation Help Desk.
Nick Robinson is one student who took advantage of the graduation help desk. Robinson was the first in his family to earn a college degree, but he said it was not an easy journey.
He was a high school dropout who wanted more, so he took remedial math courses, got his GED, enrolled in honor courses at UTSA, and maintained a good GPA. He even juggled helping his son in school while navigating online classes himself.
Robinson’s experience is similar to other UTSA students. UTSA dominantly serves Latino students, many of which are non-traditional students or first generation. More than 75% of students at UTSA are working at least part-time. Nearly 45% of UTSA’s student body is the first in their family to attend college and over 40% are Pell Grant eligible.
Right before his last semester, he almost didn’t make it to the finish line when he nearly lost his tuition money. Robinson had enrolled in too many classes over his college career, making him ineligible for his Pell Grant, he said.
The university tacked on nearly $6,000 in tuition fees. Robinson couldn’t afford it.
“I loved being a student and I loved making up for the mistake I made dropping out of high school. But then just right there at my last semester, I thought ... ‘you’re being punished,’” Robinson said.
Robinson said he has heard of other non-traditional or first-generation students feeling out of place in a college setting.
“It’s like there’s a person telling me, get out of here. We don’t want you here that long,” Robinson said.
To give students support throughout their time at UTSA, the university launched the First to Go and Graduate program.
It pairs first-generation students with trained peer mentors and faculty coaches who were also first-generation college students.
To date, the program has served 1,403 students, including 821 Latino students. Between fall 2016 and fall 2019, it resulted in a 17% increase in graduation and retention rates.
Instead of dropping out of school a second time, Robinson took advantage of another resource— the Graduation Help Desk. It aids students to address unforeseen challenges when trying to graduate.
“Maybe in 24 hours I get an email from Matt Keneson and boom, he said, ‘don’t worry,’ he could tell I’m stressed out. And he said, ‘Don’t worry, you are right there at the end,’” Robinson said.
Robinson was asked to sign a contract. If he graduated, the tuition fees would be waived. And that is what happened. He went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and completed a seven-month internship with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He continues to work towards his dream job.
The Graduation Help Desk is run by Matt Keneson, who helps students in a variety of ways. He works remotely, monitoring students’ mid-term grades and emailing students directly if their success is in decline.
“Hey, what’s going on? How can we help you? Why are you struggling? We have an academic success coach. Would you like to meet with them,” said Tammy Jordan Wyatt, the vice provost for student success.
He also reaches out to students who are close to graduating but have not enrolled in the upcoming semester. Keneson said the longer a student delays taking classes, the less likely they are to graduate.
“One student hadn’t been at UTSA in over a year, and she was only missing two classes to graduate. And so I let her know: ‘I know you’re not in San Antonio anymore, but every single one of our classes this summer is online. Would you like to enroll in those last few classes and graduate?’ Which she did,” Keneson said.
He also tracks class availability, making sure students aren’t enrolled in multiple classes worth the same credit or opening new class times when a popular class is filled. These initiatives can save students time and money.
“We’re now able to, with just a few clicks, request this report. Within minutes I get emailed a report of hundreds of students, and that is actually one of the main ways that we have helped save students time and money, by having them shift into different classes that are actually going to help them make progress toward graduation,” Keneson said.
Since its start in 2017, the help desk has removed graduation roadblocks for nearly 2,000 UTSA students, saving them $3.2 million in added tuition and fees.
Overall, between 2010 and 2020, UTSA improved its four and six-year graduation rates by 17 and 19 percentage points, respectively.
In 2021, Hispanic and Black students had six-year graduation rates of 51% and 55%, compared to their white peers, which attained a six-year rate of 48%. Those statistics remain significantly below national averages at public universities, which is 62% for six years.
Wyatt cites the university’s graduation growth to tracking data when implementing a new initiative.
“We started just over a decade ago in rolling out these large-scale efforts that we didn’t have before, we’re just now reaping the benefits of all of that work that’s been done. As you continue to be successful, it gets harder and harder to make those big increases,” Wyatt said.
The student population at UTSA is dominantly transfer, first generation, Hispanic and students from low-income households, which coincides with the low number of Hispanics in San Antonio that have a college degree. According to U.S. Census data, just 17% of Hispanics in the San Antonio metropolitan area have a bachelor’s degree.
It’s unclear why Hispanics, who populate the majority of the city, have the lowest graduation rates.
However, Wyatt said UTSA is creating methods that tackle the unique issues exclusive to low-income, first-generation and transfer students, so other universities’ can learn how to improve their graduation rates in these populations.
“I think UTSA is a model institution for what other institutions will look like in the future first,” Wyatt said. “We’re able to serve as a model and help other institutions as their demographics change and become more like what we are now, we can help them so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can give them examples of what works for our students.”
Chart: UTSA graduation rates since 2008