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UT Students Must Find Their Passions, Quickly

Jeremy Burchard, Daily Texan Editorial Board
March 25, 2010

The Second Task Force on Enrollment Strategy, a 20-member panel composed of administration, faculty, students and Texas Exes representatives, released a 16-page report detailing its recommendations for managing student enrollment at UT last February. The most contentious, and subsequently most publicized, recommendation involves putting a 10-semester limit on undergraduates earning degrees.

Since the report came out, a quiet rumble of discontent has made its way through student groups and newspapers, most recently with syndicated columnist John Young's piece, "College Is More Than Just A Numbers Game," published in the Austin American-Statesman and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other dailies. The UT Senate of College Councils took a big step for student representation by unanimously voting against the specific semester-limit recommendation while still supporting other recommendations in the report, such as maintaining a low student-faculty ratio and reviewing the financial aid application process. Those concerned with the educational goals of the University, including this editorial board, took issue with the recommendation almost immediately.

But why such a sense of urgency?

The 10-semester limit idea isn't new. In fact, the First Task Force on Enrollment Strategy offered the same shortsighted recommendation in 2003. The biggest difference between then and now, however, is that this time, the limit has a serious shot at being implemented. In 2003, the limit was a statistical quick fix for a common misconception that if you're still at the University after 10 semesters, you're not doing enough to get out. Seven years later, the 10-semester limit is still the brainchild of that same off-point thinking, but in a completely different economic environment.

The University is constantly being asked to cut its budget. Since it costs a lot more money to send students to the University than the $4,000-plus in tuition provided by students every semester, the administration is looking for ways to cut costs but maintain quality -- by cutting students. The UT exception to the top 10 percent rule was, among other things, a way to start by cutting from the bottom; UT simply can't feasibly support the growth projected in the coming years. The 10-semester limit purports to be a way to cut from the top. But there's a difference between stricter admission rules and effectively kicking students out altogether. The first is an unfortunate byproduct of being the flagship tier-one university in a state as populated as Texas, and the other is a fantastic way to pervert the goal of the University and leave students with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Besides capping the stay at UT at 10 semesters (with exceptions for particular cases), the 10-semester limit would essentially tie students down to a major before they even get a taste of what the University has to offer. It would also essentially penalize changing majors within the University and even within colleges. The goal of the University in the task force's eyes is clear: "Get in, complete your credits, and get out."

Fortunately, an academic alternative is picking up steam. The Intellectual Entrepreneurship Academic-Community Mentorship Program builds off the already existing and nationally recognized Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium's Pre-Graduate School Internship Program to help undergraduates discover what they want to do early in their college careers, so they both complete their degrees in a timely fashion and discover their passion in the process. Due in large part to the practicality of the program and the relentless efforts of professor and director Dr. Richard Cherwitz, the proposed mentorship program has garnered the attention of educators around the country. The program, which gives freshmen and sophomores an in-depth look at the opportunities available to them through a network of graduate students and professionals, presents a way to not only maintain the University's education standards but also improve upon them while helping students complete degrees in a reasonable amount of time.

That's not to say the program will solve the enrollment issues entirely; it's a relatively small step statistically, taking between 40-60 freshmen initially. But like all programs, with its inevitable success comes growth -- and a positive way to help students who want to explore academically in a fiscally responsible manner.

It may be easy to shrug off the task force's recommendation, noting that nothing happened in 2003. But circumstances are different, and we don't just want "nothing" to happen -- we want a positive solution to an unfortunate but critical situation. The mentorship program is a great place to start.