Moments after Stephanie Quintero walked into her first college chemistry class last fall, she knew that the University of Texas at Austin would be nothing like Carver High.
Quintero had breezed through her four years at the Houston-area high school. But her new classmates looked better-prepared. And her professor issued an intimidating first-day warning.
“She was like, ‘Look around. Half of the students in this class are not going to be here by the end of this semester. And also, half of you are not going to be doctors like you guys thought you would be,’” Quintero recalled.
Quintero, whose dad is a maintenance worker at a country club and whose mom cleans houses, did OK on her first test. But she failed the second one. The third exam was supposed to be easier, but she failed that, too.
“I just broke down,” Quintero said of when she got her results. “I started crying.”
Quintero’s early struggles made her wonder whether she was ready for college. She got into UT-Austin automatically because she was in the top 7 percent of her high school class. But her small magnet school was considered “in the hood,” she said. She’d taken AP biology there, but when she saw her peers, she felt like that class had been a joke.
“When you’re not challenged, you get used to that,” Quintero said. “You get used to smooth sailing. Coming here, it’s completely different. It’s like you’re challenged on another level, and if you’re not ready for that and you don’t know how to cope, then it’ll be hard to move forward.”
Scores of UT-Austin freshmen go through the same thing each year. They come from schools in rural West Texas, near the border with Mexico or in inner-city Dallas. They lack the college-level training or tutoring that more well-to-do students receive. And they’re growing in numbers; in Texas, 71 percent of schoolchildren are nonwhite, and nearly 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.
Many get in with the help of Texas’ Top 10 Percent Rule, which promises automatic admission into any state university if students graduate in the top tier of their public high school class, regardless of their SAT scores. (At UT-Austin, they usually have to be in the top 7 percent; everywhere else, it’s the top 10 percent.)
Most top UT-Austin administrators declined to comment for this story. But they have long expressed frustration with the law, saying it’s partly responsible for a low graduation rate and low average SAT scores of incoming freshmen. Those factors hurt UT-Austin when it comes to important national rankings, an unfortunate unintended consequence of the law, they say.
“Candidly, right now what is holding us back is the 10 Percent Rule,” UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven told the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board this January.
But because UT-Austin has no power to change the rule, it has been forced to grapple with how to make those students more successful. And that has created another unintended consequence: In recent years, the university has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to help students like Quintero catch up and stay on track to graduate in four years.
The school’s overarching goal is to raise the four-year graduation rate from 52 percent in 2012 to 70 percent by 2017. Early data suggests that it’s getting close to this goal; next year, the rate expected to be over 60 percent.
If the university succeeds, it will have broken new ground in closing the persistent achievement gap between low-income students of color and wealthier, white students — at the same time it is fighting against the very rule that might have spearheaded the effort.
A change in philosophy
The man in charge of raising the graduation rate at UT-Austin is David Laude, a chemistry professor who knows exactly how Quintero felt. “Most people who’ve become faculty at public research universities don’t start off by doing really badly on the SAT and then getting a C in the course they now teach,” he said recently from his office in the iconic UT Tower.
The son of a California high school football coach, Laude showed up as a student on the campus of the University of the South in the 1970s without a clue of how to succeed in college.
During his first semester, he struggled through most of his classes and got a C in an introductory chemistry course. It was a seminal moment in his life. He returned home that winter expecting he’d drop out and enroll in a local junior college. But his dad sent him back to school. Eventually, he ended up at UT-Austin, teaching introductory chemistry.
About a decade into his career at the university — around the time the Top 10 Percent Rule was put in place — Laude started to notice a change in his students’ preparedness. Their grades stopped breaking down among the normal even distribution; it seemed like everyone was either getting an A, a D or an F.
“I would have 10 or 15 percent of my students who just did horribly,” Laude said. “They simply could not pass the coursework at all.”
He studied the demographics of that group. It was diverse — Hispanics from the border, white kids from tiny towns and first-generation Asian students whose parents had come to Texas after the fall of Saigon. But there were common traits, too. Many of the students were the first in their families to attend college. Most had poor parents and hadn’t been exposed to college-level courses during high school.
The disparities are particularly glaring in science classes such as chemistry. Fatima Fakhreddine, who was Quintero’s professor last fall, said she sees a wide variety in how quickly students can grasp the material. Some know the subject matter well before they arrive. Others tell her that during their high school AP chemistry class, “‘we spent the whole semester talking about the periodic table. We didn’t talk about anything else,’” Fakhreddine recalled.
The Top 10 Percent Rule’s influence has long been clear to Fakhreddine and Laude. All of Laude’s students who struggled had been admitted automatically, he said. And most went to underperforming high schools.
So in 1999, Laude created what is now called the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP, a program designed to help guide those at-risk students through their transition to college. The first group included 50 freshmen in the College of Natural Sciences who came from poor families that had little exposure to higher education. Most were black or Hispanic and scored very low on the SAT.
Each of those students was placed in classes that were much smaller than the normal size of 500 for an introductory course. And the students were all provided supplemental instruction, peer advising and extra attention from their advisers and professors.
“We would get together every Monday morning and run down the list of students,” Laude said. “The group of faculty would call out each student’s name and say, ‘How is he doing? How is she doing?’”
If a student was skipping class, feeling homesick or had flunked a test, then the professors and advisers swooped in and tried to help.
In some ways, it was a radical change in philosophy. Many science professors viewed their freshman-level courses as weed-out opportunities. Not everyone had the brains to be a doctor or a physicist, so they figured it was better to force them to sink or swim immediately. Those who sank would do so quickly, and then could move on to an area of study they could handle.
But that idea always bothered Laude, who says he might have sunk himself if he’d had professors with that attitude. Students from poor schools were often facing a challenging educational environment for the first time. It was foolish to tell the ones who struggled that they weren’t smart enough, he said. Those students simply needed to learn how to learn.
“Why it is we take an incoming student who got into this university through the Top 10 Percent legislation, who was the best in their high school, and then we expect them to sit next to somebody who has a 300-point-higher SAT and three weeks later prove that they can get the exact same score on a calculus test?” Laude said. “That is ridiculous.”
Success beyond expectations
Since it launched, the TIP scholars program has grown to include 500 freshmen each year. At a cost of $500 per year per student, that comes out to $250,000 per year. And it has succeeded beyond Laude’s wildest expectations.
Administrators use a complex formula including SAT score, family income and race to select TIP students. And each year, even though those students’ low test scores and poverty status put them at higher risk of performing poorly, they consistently do better than non-TIP students in those majors.
More than 71 percent of TIP freshmen in the College of Natural Sciences earned a GPA of 3.0 or higher in 2011 — the most recent year for which such data is available — compared with 62 percent of non-TIP freshmen. The numbers are similar for TIP students in the College of Liberal Arts.
The effects continue beyond freshman year, especially in the College of Natural Sciences. Sophomore TIP students studying science were far more likely to earn a GPA of 3.0 or higher than non-TIP students. And they were more likely to stick to majoring in the sciences rather than switching to a different major.
“Our students, the type of students you accepted in TIP, were failing,” said Fakhreddine, Laude’s fellow chemistry professor. “Now, they’re actually outperforming their peers.”
Other colleges within the university had their own success programs, but a more coordinated effort to bring them together began in 2011, when the university set its goal of raising the four-year graduation rate to 70 percent.
UT-Austin leaders still complained about the Top 10 Percent Rule, but they also renewed their efforts to help the students who the law brought in. Administrators put Laude in charge of the effort, promoting him to vice provost.
Reaching a 70 percent graduation rate was a high bar. Many schools with similar goals might have reconsidered their admissions policies. They might have asked whether they are letting in people who are underprepared and, if so, how they could find students who would be more successful. But UT-Austin didn’t have that flexibility. Seventy-five percent of its incoming freshmen are admitted automatically each year under the rule.
So, using “adversity indicators” such as family income and parents’ education backgrounds, Laude identified the quartile of freshmen who were least likely to graduate in 4 years. All of those students would be placed in a TIP-like academic success program. And some of them would also be part of the University Leadership Network.
The ULN offers member students a $20,000 scholarship, paid in monthly increments over their college careers. To keep getting the scholarship money, students have to maintain a 2.0 GPA and stay enrolled in a full course load to graduate on time. They also have to complete an on-campus internship.
The reason for the internship is to keep them involved in campus life. Many poor students may not have the time or resources to join a sorority or club, Laude said. Some have off-campus jobs delivering pizza or waiting tables. They only come to the university to go to class, and they spend the rest of their days away from other students.
The ULN tries to set the students up with jobs in their fields of interest — an accounting student may work for the university's accounting office, for example. And the work keeps the students on campus longer.
“Everything about the ULN is saying to these students: ‘This is a place where you need to spend as much time as you can,’” Laude said.
Finally, the freshmen in the ULN are expected to attend weekly meetings in large and small groups. In large groups, students hear from special lecturers who talk about their own college experiences. During the small group sessions, upperclassmen in the ULN lead talks about setting long-term goals as well as studying and job interview techniques.
The ULN is portrayed to students as a prestigious honor. But they aren’t told why they are chosen — and they never apply.
There’s no shortage of students who qualify. Each year, the ULN accepts 500 new freshmen, committing to $10 million in scholarships for them. And the costs of running the program come out to $500,000 for all students participating. Laude says “there are probably on the order of 1,000 more students who could benefit.” Administrators are sometimes stopped on campus by students who want to know how they can join.
Laude feels confident that the program is working, citing the growing percentage of students with the most adversity indicators who stick around after their freshman year — a measure known as persistence rate. From 2011 to 2015, the gap in that rate between those students and the ones with the fewest adversity indicators shrunk by more than half.
The school’s four-year graduation rate ticked up to 55 percent in the program’s first year. The following year, the rate rose to 58 percent.
“My hope is that the Class of 2017 will actually get to 70 percent,” he said. “It would be a pretty neat thing if that happens.”
At the same time, UT leaders such as McRaven are pushing to repeal the Top 10 Percent Rule and admit fewer of the students that programs like the ULN are trying to help.
Laude stays out of that debate. But he acknowledges that it may not be a coincidence that the university most affected by the law is the one putting so much work into helping underprepared students.
“It’s entirely possible that this is, on a certain level, the happy happenstance of the fact that the Top 10 Percent Rule happened right about the same time that I started teaching large introductory chemistry courses,” Laude said.
Fakhreddine said the strides that TIP students have made show the potential benefits of the rule. “I really think we are helping a lot of these students who are underrepresented. If it weren’t for the Top 10 Percent Rule, they wouldn’t be at UT,” she said.
“On the other hand, there are students who really deserve to be at UT, and we simply don’t have room for them.”
A turning point
Stephanie Quintero found out she qualified for ULN the summer before her freshman year. The scholarship was a huge weight off her shoulders — it meant she could immediately pay off some of her loans.
Perhaps just as importantly, it made her feel like she belonged.
“I got an email, congratulating me that I was in ULN,” Quintero remembered. “And so then that was like a for sure, wow, like, I’m meant to be at UT.’”
She is also in TIP, and the small-group components of both programs helped her make friends and adjust to college life. But early on, it wasn’t helping much with her academics.
After she failed the third test in her first chemistry college class, she was devastated.
She had been calling her mom every day, but hadn’t come clean about her chemistry grades. After she failed the third test, she called and fessed up. Her mom was supportive, but she couldn’t offer much help on subjects like entropy or chemical reactions.
But Quintero’s TIP program gave her access to someone who could be of assistance — her assigned mentor was a junior chemistry major who had taken the same class. The mentor’s advice? Talk to the professor.
Quintero was scared to do it. She figured Fakhreddine would tell her there’s no way out; you only have one more test before the final. You’re going to fail chemistry.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Fakhreddine told her she wasn’t failing. The tests didn’t go well, but Quintero scored well on the quizzes and other assignments. And Fakhreddine allows students to drop their lowest test score. So what was going wrong? That’s when Quintero admitted that she doesn’t study every day.
That meeting was a turning point. “Knowing that my professor believed in me, that just gave me an extra push to prove her right,” Quintero said.
So she started spending an hour each day going over chemistry lectures and homework problems. And she ended up getting a B on the final. That raised her final grade from a D to a B.
Now, Quintero knows how to study for her science courses. She reaches out to professors earlier. And she’s more confident about college in general.
If she hadn’t taken her TIP mentor’s advice, Quintero thinks she might have passed chemistry — with a C. Or she might have failed. If that had happened, “I would still hold it against myself. I failed. I’ve never failed before.”
She returned this semester more confident and believes she’s doing well in her second round of classes. Her B was about more than chemistry. It showed her that she belonged.
“It was just proving to myself that if I set my mind to something, I can accomplish it,” she said.
This story is a collaboration between The Texas Tribune and Reveal, a public radio show and podcast from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
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