UGA hopes scholarships boost grad rates

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ATHENS, Ga. -- The University of Georgia intends to launch a drive to raise money for students in financial need.

More money for need-based scholarships is one of three major goals university administrators outlined as part of a statewide initiative to improve graduation rates in the state’s public colleges, universities and technical colleges. Each one of those institutions submitted a separate plan.

Even before Gov. Nathan Deal’s Complete College Georgia initiative, university administrators had been implementing programs to improve graduation rates, and UGA now has the highest graduation rate among the state’s colleges and universities, said UGA Vice President for Instruction Laura Jolly.

Of freshmen who started their studies in 2005, 55.3 percent completed a degree in four years and 83.3 percent within six years, according to data UGA submitted in its plan. Of students who started studies in 1999, just 74.9 percent graduated within six years.

But a dramatic increase in the number of UGA students who need financial help threatens those gains.

“We have not seen that yet, but we know that it is likely to be a factor moving forward,” Jolly said Tuesday.

The lingering economic downturn has left many families less able to help pay their children’s college bills, and the value of the HOPE Scholarship, which many UGA students depend on, has declined.

At the same time, the costs of attending UGA has increased sharply as the state Board of Regents hiked tuition and fees in response to state cutbacks in funding for higher education.

The number of UGA students applying for Pell Grants has more than doubled since 2007-08, according to the report. The Pell Grant is a federal program that gives money to students who need it to pay for college.

And about 42 percent of UGA freshmen surveyed in 2011 said financial woes might make achieving a degree difficult.

UGA will also pursue other strategies to improve graduation rates, according to the report.

“I think that when we admit a student, they’ve made a commitment to them and we’ve made a commitment to them,” Jolly said. “It would be our goal to help them be successful.”

UGA administrators want to improve six-year graduation rates to about 86 percent — the average rate of a dozen “aspirational” universities UGA wants to become more like.

The group’s graduation rates range from 93 percent at Cornell, 91 percent at the University of California-Berkeley and 90 percent at the University of North Carolina, down to 81 percent at the University of Texas-Austin, 80 percent at the University of Wisconsin and 70 percent at the University of Minnesota.

UGA will also expand its programs that help students get ready for college, particularly in the so-called STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and medicine.

“I’m confident that with heightened awareness and heightened focus, just paying attention, there are ways we can improve,” Jolly said. “We’re committed to student success, and we’re committed to academic quality and excellence.”


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