UT Named a Finalist for Prestigious, National Trailblazer Award

UT is being recognized on the national stage for the transformations it has made to improve student retention and graduation rates.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities recently named the university as a finalist for its “Most Visible Progress” Trailblazer award. Now in its second year, the award is designed to mobilize colleges and universities to make retention and graduation a high priority and to reward and help others learn from the programs that work. APLU is a research, policy, and advocacy organization of 236 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems, and higher education organizations in America, Canada, and Mexico. The winner will be announced at APLU’s annual conference, set for November 2 through 4 in Orlando, Florida.

Over the past six years, the university has its raised four-year graduation rate by 12 percentage points to 43 percent and its six-year graduation rate by 9 percentage points to 69 percent. UT has also improved first-year student retention by 3 percentage points to 87 percent in the same time frame.

“We are proud to be recognized by APLU for our success. I commend our faculty, staff, and students for their collaboration and effort to build our new culture of student success,” said Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. “The improvements we’ve made are helping our students save money and limit their debt by earning their degrees on time and starting their careers sooner.”

Improving these outcomes also makes the university more efficient and effective in boosting Tennessee’s college-educated workforce. Tennessee’s Complete College Act of 2010 recalibrated the state’s funding formula to reward performance in these and other metrics.

Several retention and graduation initiatives began ten years ago. Momentum picked up in 2010 when Chancellor Cheek announced goals for becoming a Top 25 public research university. These goals and UT’s strategic plan have helped cultivate a focus on making holistic improvements to all aspects of the undergraduate experience. The Top 25 goal also focuses on building research, improving graduate education and faculty salaries, and strengthening infrastructure and resources to levels competitive with our aspirational peer universities.

UT changed its tuition model in 2013 to encourage four-year graduation and has invested $10.4 million in the past three years to transform a number of areas that include:

Adding advisers and tutors and improving service delivery.

Adding instructors and sections for high-demand courses to eliminate bottlenecks, key obstacles to graduating on time.

Expanding existing freshman seminar classes, learning communities, and first-year transition programs.

Improving and adding experiential learning and service opportunities to attract and retain high-ability students through undergraduate research opportunities, more honors programs, study abroad programs, and service-learning and leadership opportunities.

Harnessing technology to better understand the undergraduate profile and make data-driven decisions on how best to use resources. Technology also played a key role in improving UT’s ability to track students’ progress toward their degree through the uTrack program.

Combining the core services of the registrar, bursar, and financial aid offices in person, online, and on the phone. One Stop Express Student Services is now serving the majority of student needs from Hodges Library and cutting back the need to send students to various offices to resolve their questions or problems.

“We still have a way to go in our journey, but we are becoming a much better university every year,” said Cheek.

The chancellor added how communicating with students about expectations has also been critical.

“A few years ago we began giving every freshman their four-year graduation tassel at their first big welcome event on campus,” he said. “We want to make sure they know we’re committed to their success as a Volunteer, but that they must take the lead.”

C O N T A C T :

Karen Simsen (865-974-5186, ksimsen@utk.edu)