In the farthest corner of West Texas — nestled between the Franklin Mountains and the United States-Mexico border, hundreds of miles from any other public university in the state — the University of Texas at El Paso and its fortress-like buildings occupy one of the state’s most exotic campus settings.
The perspective of its president, Diana Natalicio, is similarly distinct as she seeks to redefine what determines a university’s success. She eschews commonly accepted higher-education measures like graduation rates, which show that just one out of 10 freshmen entering UTEP graduate within four years. She said UTEP, which has more than 18,000 undergraduate students and accepts nearly 97 percent of its applicants, aimed to demonstrate that a university “could actually achieve both access and excellence.”
The highest four-year graduation rate at a public Texas university is 53 percent at the University of Texas at Austin, hardly boast-worthy. In a nod to the growing span of the typical college experience, the six-year graduation rate has become the standard in higher-education measures. In Texas, it is roughly 49 percent, which ranks 17th in the country, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. At UTEP, just 35 percent of students have graduated after six years; only 46 percent get their degrees in a decade.
Critics say UTEP and other Texas universities are failing in their core responsibility of graduating students, although the state’s completion crisis is far from the worst. But with predictions that more than 60 percent of the nation’s jobs will require a higher-education credential in 2020, the same critics say that Texas’ public universities are lagging in their mission to prepare the state work force for the future, potentially creating major economic implications.