Georgia colleges' graduation rates unsatisfactory

No longer can Georgia's public colleges simply enroll students and fail to graduate them. The State Board of Regents has ordered all 35 institutions to improve graduation rates and is researching ways to tie success in this area with the money campuses and college presidents receive.

The University System of Georgia enrolls more than 310,000 students -- an increase of more than 100,000 in the past decade. Behind that rapid growth lies a problem. Less than 60 percent of students graduate within six years.

"Let's be honest, that is an embarrassment," said Willis Potts, chairman of the State Board of Regents. "If we take students’ money we have a moral and ethical obligation to do everything we possibly can to help them graduate. We haven’t been doing that."

The regents ordered each college president to explain where their campuses struggle. They had to develop improvement plans, with most calling on graduation rates to improve by 1 percent a year over the next three years. The regents approved those plans earlier this month.

Potts said the next step is to research linking campus funding and presidential compensation to how well colleges meet their  goals.

The campus strategies outlined would provide students with academic, emotional and financial support. Some are in place and would be expanded, while others are new.

Georgia Gwinnett College pairs all students with mentors, and professors call students if they skip class or fall behind in assignments. Georgia Southern University targets students who historically struggle and assigns them tutors and mentors to help them adjust academically and socially. Georgia State University provides workshops, seminars and other assistance to help students earn and maintain grades high enough to receive the HOPE scholarship, which covers tuition and other expenses.

"We are not babying or coddling our students or giving them easier work to do," Georgia Southern Provost Jean Bartels said. "We are giving them the skills to be successful."

Colleges can do only so much. Students, who must ultimately take responsibility for their own education, may not know how to graduate on time or where to turn for help.

"You turn 18 and get into college and you think you're a grown-up who knows everything," said Grace Binion, a sophomore at Georgia Gwinnett. "College is humbling because you realize how much you don't know. You don't even know what you don't know and you really need someone who can help you figure all this out."

Potts said Georgia is looking to follow Tennessee and other states by tying some of a college's funding to student success. This could start on a small scale for the 2012 fiscal year, Potts said.

"We're all still trying to figure out how to do this, but tying money to just enrollment isn't going to cut it anymore," Potts said. "The finished product is what we need to focus on. What gets rewarded is what gets done."

The regents also plan to connect a college president's compensation to student success, he said. Presidents' evaluations are goal-based and the regents will start including the newly developed graduation targets in the review, he said.

Georgia Gwinnett President Daniel Kaufman said student success rests with campus leaders.

"It is a shared responsibility between the students, faculty and administration to make sure we are giving students what they need," Kaufman said. "The focus of a college is set with the leader and it is up to the campus president to say this is important."

Georgia's efforts coincide with a national push to improve college success. Nationally, about 60 percent of students graduate within six years. President Barack Obama has said the nation needs more college-educated adults to meet workforce needs. The nonpartisan Southern Regional Education Board has outlined steps states can take to increase the number of college graduates.

Some college presidents said they were worried about improving as they face budget cuts because of the recession, but Potts said supporting students is more about a time commitment, not a financial one.

It's also about using money wisely, Kaufman said. The Lawrenceville college spends about $1.5 million a year on academic support programs. It has no academic departments and no department chairmen and while others have a vice president for academic affairs and a vice president for student services, one person does both jobs at the college.

Georgia Gwinnett admitted its first freshman class in 2007 and therefore has no six-year graduation rate. It boasts a high retention rate, with about 75 percent of first-year students returning for sophomore year. That's higher than the 60 percent average for its peer state colleges.

The college encourages students to call, text and e-mail professors. The college issued smart phones to all professors, who must provide students with their contact information and respond within 24 hours.

"You don't want to call them too much, but if an assignment is missing or if I don't see them in class I will send a text to make sure they're okay," Prof. Marilyn Dolven said.

At Georgia State, where 87 percent of the students are on financial aid, affording college is a challenge. Georgia State provides extensive tutoring, advising and mentoring to students, but it also offers programs to help students keep or gain the HOPE scholarship.

Half the students who come to Georgia State on the award lose it, officials said. Those students have a graduation rate of barely 20 percent while the university average is about 58 percent, according to university system figures. The Keep HOPE Alive program targets students who lost it by giving them $500 scholarships, provided they attend workshops to improve their skills so they can earn back the award.

Officials also launched a program for 200 freshmen who are either at risk of losing HOPE or most likely to gain it while in college. These students attend programs during the summer and academic year that address time management, test-taking strategies, how to talk with a professor or use textbooks and other skills.

At Georgia Southern about 57 percent of the students graduate within six years. Officials developed a website that students and parents can access to see the class schedules needed to graduate in four years. Mentors and advisers also work with students to help them declare a major early on so they can complete their courses on time, Bartels said.

The Statesboro college also developed a program for black males called Pathways to Success. About 20 students a year receive tutors and mentors and they are invited to campus a week before classes begin to start adjusting to college life.

Sophomore Djuan Billingslea completed the program last year and now serves as mentor. The program kept him out of trouble, he said.

"It would have been so easy not to go to class but I knew these people were looking out for me and I didn't want to let them down," he said. "But it also gave me a brotherhood. I felt like I had a community I could go to and talk to. I know that only I can control how well I do in college but it's nice there are people I can turn to."

Georgia graduation rates

Graduation rates are determined by looking at how many students start in one fall and graduate within six years. Georgia's most recent six-year data reflect students who started in fall 2003 and graduated by summer 2009. The national average is about 60 percent. College presidents submitted plans to improve these rates by about 1 percentage point a year for each of the next three years.

College ... Graduation rate

University of Georgia ... 82.4

Georgia Tech ... 81.3

Georgia State ... 57.6

Georgia College & State ... 62.1

Georgia Southern ... 57.4

Clayton State ... 39.5

Kennesaw State ... 46.2

Southern Polytechnic State ... 42.5

University of West Georgia ... 45.3

University system total ... 58.9

Source: University System of Georgia

NOTE: Graduation rates represent students who attend full-time and are enrolled in college for the first time.