Panel offers ideas to lower dropout rate

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ATLANTA --- Holding the line on tuition, unneeded classes and funding based on enrollment are some of the ideas experts suggest as ways colleges can help the half of students who drop out earn a diploma.

Just hours before the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents voted Tuesday to boost fees and tuition by $120 million -- or a combined 9 percent -- a panel of experts from business and education shared ideas on how to produce more graduates. More than one mentioned the expense.

Students who can't afford college either go into debt or have to work while they study. The debt can make them stagger from the burden, and working usually stretches out a college career because it means less time for class.

"If you are a student, the longer you spend in school, the less likely you are to finish," said Will Pinkston, an education consultant. "Life gets in the way."

One the other hand, technical colleges typically graduate 75 percent of their students in significantly shorter time, partly because they don't require unneeded classes, he said.

Colleges need to become more efficient, according to David Spence, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board. About one-fourth of the classes students take are unnecessary, he said.

Other strategies Pinkston offered include requiring class attendance, scheduling classes so they are convenient to students rather than the professors, using more online courses and encouraging summer school instead of leaving buildings idle.

He also recommends adopting a Tennessee formula that bases college funding on how many students graduate instead of how many enroll.

Businessman Dean Alford agreed. He sits on the board of advisers to Georgia Tech, where he's frustrated by the attitude of professors more intent on challenging students than educating them.

"We need to stop professors from giving a test so hard that the best students make a 50 and then setting a curve," he said.

Changing those attitudes and work schedules isn't easy on campuses where professors have tenure and are more likely to think of themselves as a historian or biologist than as an educator, according to one administrator tasked with boosting college completion.

"The culture of higher education is very hard to change," said Lynn Weisenbach, a vice chancellor of the University System.


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