If the University of Tennessee is going to climb the ladder to national prominence, the state's flagship school must overhaul a prevailing campus culture that gives students the go-ahead to take five or six years to graduate.
And scaling down the state lottery scholarship for higher education to cover four years instead of five is a major change needed to achieve the goal, said University of Tennessee in Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek.
"There is a real concern about opening up the conversation. There is also concern about changing it," said Dr. Cheek, who spoke Monday to a Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board. "The longer we let them stay in, the fewer resources we have."
UTC officials agree and said the University of Tennessee system should be lobbying for an eight-semester scholarship that includes summer terms to replace the existing five-year limit because it would help all campuses up their poor graduation rates.
"If we can get it to apply to summer time and speed people up it could improve the rates to graduation," said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor Roger Brown.
For UT -- now ranked 52 among 600 research institutions -- to move into a spot as a top 25 national university, placing it among schools such as the University of Virginia, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina, graduation rates and freshman to sophomore retention must improve.
The current graduation rate at UT is 60 percent, 15 points below the average graduation rate of 75 percent at top 25 schools. The percentage of students at UT who return as sophomores after their freshman year is 84 percent, below the average retention rate of 90 percent at top universities.
The campaign to improve UT's academic profile could take longer than a decade, Dr. Cheek said. The University of Pittsburgh, a university with one of the quickest climbs in the rankings, took 10 years to jump 18 slots.
"This is an aggressive plan," said Dr. Cheek. "The journey we take is more important than the goal we achieve."
Incoming freshmen already are being told to plan for a graduation date in four years, and, unlike previous classes, these and future students will be prodded to finish their degree with much more intrusive academic advising.
The gap between UT and the top 25 universities
UT -- 60 percent
Top 25 target -- 75 percent
UT -- 84 percent
Top 25 target -- 90 percent
Doctoral degrees awarded
UT -- 277
Top 25 target -- 486
Spending per student
UT -- $16,100
Top 25 Target -- $24,300
Average faculty salary
UT -- $66,800 to $107,700
Top 25 Target -- $72,600 to $120,000
Registration software will alert students about what classes they should take each semester if they want to make progress toward their major.
Students who avoid or drop classes they should be taking -- for example, an engineering student who won't take calculus -- will be locked out of registration until they talk with an adviser or counselor who will question them about their choice of major.
"We will test students against their major," Dr. Cheek said.
But on top of institutional changes that can push students through the system at a faster rate, legislators should look at changing the qualification for the HOPE scholarships, which currently encourages delayed graduations by offering the scholarship through five years and restricting use for summer classes, he said.
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said legislators must have a tough conversation about the future of the scholarship in coming years, especially because there is a budget deficit this year and growing concern about its ability to pay out for existing recipients.
Still, before state leaders vote to limit the scholarship to four years or include summer terms, Sen. Berke said legislators need to see that campuses are making it possible for students to finish in a four-year time frame.
"We certainly want to encourage speed in graduation," Sen. Berke said. "It's challenging for students to get through in four years. I want them to show me that this is not just a realistic but an easily doable plan for people before we vote to restrict it in that way."