When Paul Sullivan entered Augusta State University in 2002, finishing a degree in four years was his last priority.
“When I first got there, I wasn’t ready,” Sullivan said. “I wasn’t responsible enough. My first year and a half was a wash. I think I took two credits that year.”
It took seven years for Sullivan to complete a bachelor’s degree in English as he struggled to see the importance of an education while fighting distractions in the town where he grew up. He was out of school and working at a pizza place when he realized he didn’t want to make minimum wage for the rest of his life.
As officials work to consolidate Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities, they are attempting to address twin ills at ASU: a dismal graduation rate and falling enrollment. They acknowledge that eradicating those problems could be a lengthy process.
“What is more worrisome is those people who are lost completely from the system,” GHSU Provost Gretchen Caughman said. “They have put their time, money, whatever scholarships, as well as the resources of the institution and the state into a process, and they don’t really have the credential at the end.”
In 2010, only 25 percent of ASU students completed a bachelor’s degree within six years and only 7 percent finished in four. That’s compared with the 55.5 percent of students nationally and 47.5 percent in Georgia who finished within six years.
Carol Rychly, ASU’s vice president for academic affairs, said the low graduation rate is mostly a reflection of student demographics and a lack of intervention in the past. About 8 percent of students had academic records that did not meet the school’s standards but were still accepted based on ASU’s open admissions policy, Rychly said.
ASU also has a large number of nontraditional commuter students, many of whom juggle academics with raising families or full-time jobs. These students can struggle to make school a priority when other obligations come first.
In the future, Rychly and Caughman said, they want to see a shift in the type of student they accept to the consolidated university. Having traditional 18- to 22-year-old students who come for the full college experience will raise the graduation rate and enrollment, they predict.
“We do see again the need to really attract the kind of student that would come with that four-year campus life experience in mind,” Caughman said.
In the past, students who were falling behind in credit hours or struggling academically did not receive help unless they asked.
The new university is considering making intervention mandatory through an “early alert system.” Under this program, an alert would be sent to students and their advisers after the first test they fail. Students would be required to attend remediation or study-skills classes to get back on track.
Caughman said officials also hope developments to the campus will enhance the college experience and attract more students. Initial figures for this semester show a drop in student enrollment for the third year in a row, down about 240 students from fall 2011 and 420 from 2010.
Currently, almost all of ASU’s students are from Georgia, and most live within driving distance of the campus, Rychly said. Part of the growth strategy has to be dorms, dining facilities and student activity centers on campus.
“It is a beautiful campus, (but) it is still a commuter campus,” Caughman said.
Increasing graduation rates is not impossible and must be a priority for ASU and other schools with low retention rates, said James Applegate, the vice president for program development at the Lumina Foundation, a private organization focused on expanding educational access to students after high school.
Low graduation rates affect a school’s reputation, reduce the viability of an educated workforce and drain the resources of students who pay for degrees they never finish, he said.
In the past five years, several U.S. universities have made efforts to push more students to graduation. They did it through record-keeping, by tracking which students are struggling and when – whether in the first year or the first semester.
Schools also must take the initiative to provide help without the student having to seek it.
“Otherwise it’s like you’re throwing darts at a dartboard in a bar where the lights are out,” Applegate said. “You can’t just wait for students to show up at somebody’s door to ask for help. Most of the schools that are succeeding are combining that data with an intrusive advising system.”
Rychly said the new university is planning incentive programs for students to do well and finish. In one pipeline program, students who complete a curriculum at a high level are “guaranteed positions in some of the medical fields that are unique to our new university,” she said.
Officials are also planning for more interaction between medical research faculty and undergraduate staff, which was done at a minimum before because financial aid rules prohibit students from being enrolled at both universities.
Staff will also reach out to Richmond County high school students to encourage dual enrollment so they have a head start on credits when they enter college as freshmen.
“We want to continue to serve our local cohorts and provide the opportunities that they have been enjoying and been accustomed to,” Caughman said. “But we have got to draw in a different market as well. And to do that we have to have freshman dorms. And we have to have a whole campus life experience that, frankly, the students and their parents expect.”