Get­ting to college is a mile­stone — and leav­ing with­out a de­gree is a mill­stone

Calhoun Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Stu­dents drop out of college for many rea­sons, some pre­ventable, some not. One trou­bling and per­sis­tent na­tional statis­tic caught our at­ten­tion and should catch yours, too.

About 20 per­cent of high school stu­dents en­ter­ing college will leave with­out a de­gree, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by the Hechinger Re­port, a non­profit news or­ga­ni­za­tion that tracks higher-ed­u­ca­tion trends. This is par­tic­u­larly frus­trat­ing and alarm­ing, since the high school grad­u­a­tion rate na­tion­wide is more than 84 per­cent, an all-time high.

When college stu­dents fail to grad­u­ate, the set­back threat­ens their long-term suc­cess and the eco­nomic prospects of com­mu­ni­ties — es­pe­cially in states like Texas where the pop­u­la­tion is in­creas­ingly young and His­panic. Texas has made strides, but it is crit­i­cal that we fig­ure out what is hap­pen­ing and not waste the con­tri­bu­tions bright young minds can make.

Poor high school prepa­ra­tion, ex­pen­sive tu­ition and fam­ily is­sues are fac­tors for non­com­ple­tion. But Texas col­leges and universities also have found they need to in­ter­vene early in a stu­dent’s aca­demic ca­reer and re­move bar­ri­ers be­fore those build to the point that stu­dents sim­ply quit.

Texas schools tell us the odds of grad­u­at­ing im­prove if stu­dents, es­pe­cially mi­nor­ity and first-gen­er­a­tion college stu­dents, can re­main en­rolled through their sopho­more year. The Univer­sity of Texas at San An­to­nio, for ex­am­ple, as­signs small groups of in­com­ing first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents to men­tors. The Univer­sity of Texas at Dal­las, among other things, en­cour­ages first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents to live on campus be­fore other stu­dents to ease the ad­just­ment to college life.

How­ever, one of the more in­no­va­tive ap­proaches comes from the Univer­sity of Texas in Austin, which uses data from aca­demic tran­scripts and per­sonal records to iden­tify about 500 en­ter­ing fresh­men who could be at risk of not grad­u­at­ing on time. Those stu­dents are put in the Univer­sity Lead­er­ship Net­work, which pays stu­dents $5,000 a year if they stay on their de­gree track and main­tain at least a 2.0 grade­point av­er­age. Stu­dents must at­tend weekly sem­i­nars, main­tain campus in­tern­ships and re­ceive peer sup­port from oth­ers who were in the pro­gram the pre­vi­ous year.

UT-Austin of­fi­cials say such pro­grams helped about 1,000 more stu­dents grad­u­ate in 2017 than in 2011, and en­abled over 1,000 first-time fresh­men to en­roll. The school’s fouryear grad­u­a­tion rate also im­proved from roughly 51 per­cent in 2012 to 65.7 per­cent in 2017, with nearly five per­cent­age points of that gain oc­cur­ring from 2016 to 2017. UT-Austin’s six-year grad­u­a­tion rate is about 86 per­cent.

Our fi­nal thought is that the state can’t pros­per un­til more schools im­prove grad­u­a­tion rates. It is em­bar­rass­ing that the six-year grad­u­a­tion rates of most Texas public col­leges and universities fall be­low the statewide av­er­age of 61 per­cent and sev­eral fall be­low 50 per­cent.

Thanks in part to sev­eral leg­isla­tive ini­tia­tives, the state has come a long way since the late 1980s, when the six-year grad­u­a­tion rate was just 45 per­cent. Long term, the state’s over­all com­pet­i­tive­ness de­pends on con­tin­ued im­prove­ment and smart ef­forts to help stu­dents suc­ceed.

It’s a chal­lenge, but one that, as a state, we must win.

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