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Reinforcing Our Commitment to Student Success

Sixty percent of the first-year students who enrolled at UT in 2003 graduated within six years. As we look now at the group that first enrolled a decade later, in 2013, that number has risen to 72 percent.

For the same groups, the four-year graduation rate moved from 31 percent to 53 percent.

These numbers are a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone on this campus who has focused on helping students achieve their goals.

I am proud of this improvement. The work we’ve done to streamline academic programs, increase access to the courses necessary to graduate, bolster advising services, and intervene when students fall behind has all been hugely effective.

This year, our six-year graduation rate and first-to-second-year retention rates held steady, and now we must look at how to keep moving this needle so we can provide all students the opportunities that come with a UT degree.

Universities with exceptionally high graduation rates often start with a more exclusive student body. They handpick the potential students that, on paper, are most likely to persist.

At UT, our land-grant mission to provide access to a world-class education is clear. We will make sure our students are getting the resources they need and that they have mentors and a community that will help them believe they belong here.

Faculty Senate President Gary Skolits reinforced that commitment at the last senate meeting, and our partnership around student success is one that will greatly benefit the students we are here to serve.

To help us focus on these efforts, I am hiring a new vice provost for student success who will coordinate across existing programs, look for new opportunities to build on our accomplishments, and lead the crafting of an even bigger vision for student success.

Our efforts start with first-generation students, who make up about a quarter of our student body and who have the largest retention gap of any demographic. Students whose parents don’t have a college degree are about 10 percent less likely to return for their sophomore year. Their challenges are often financial, but they’re also about confidence, mattering and belonging, and understanding how to navigate a college environment.

Early next month, the campus will hold a weeklong first-gen celebration. I want to encourage you to use this as an opportunity to show support and start conversations that might lead to new connections and opportunities to provide counsel or mentorship to our students.

When we look back at our own academic careers, I am certain we can all name at least one professor who made an impact on our lives and our scholarship. They encouraged us, challenged us, and invested in us.

I want the University of Tennessee to be a campus where every professor has that impact.