Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia government since 1998. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 404-589-8424 .
ATLANTA -- When Gov. Nathan Deal announced that boosting college-graduation rates was a goal of his administration, he joined a long line of public officials grasping for a solution to a nagging problem.
Fewer than half of the freshmen beginning class this month at four-year public colleges across the state will graduate in the next six years, based on long-standing trends. Those entering two-year colleges will fare worse. Just one-fourth of them will collect a sheep’s skin.
National figures are similar to Georgia’s.
“Completion numbers are not that good in Georgia. They’re not that good across the country,” said Stan Jones, president of the Complete College America foundation.
Most of those who wash out of college weren’t prepared for it. The more remedial courses a student is required to take, the greater the likelihood of flunking out.
Remedial courses essentially mean students repeat high school despite having graduated.
These college freshmen are the ones who have already surpassed their classmates as high-school where one-third never earned a baccalaureate diploma.
Georgia passed a law granting a sort of money-back guarantee on high school diplomas. It was a gimmicky way of promising employers that any graduate they hired would be adequately educated. The Board of Regents could save a bundle by claiming that guarantee.
The Board of Education toughened high school curriculum and eliminated the general diploma that many kids pursued instead of the more challenging college-prep avenue. But still colleges are having to re-teach high school courses to graduates.
To try to a different way, Deal got a $1 million grant to develop online remedial course so students can study at their own pace. That borrows from the successful dropout-prevention program developed by Communities In Schools for middle-schoolers.
Wills Potts also took a stab at the issue of college completion rates when he became chairman of the regents. He ordered every college president to draft a plan for boosting rates at their school, a step Deal ordered again Thursday.
Potts said after Deal’s announcement that every president offered the same prescription: engagement. Of course, the simplest solution would be to raise admission standards since more-selective schools like the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech have few dropouts. But the state needs college graduates to fill 60 percent of the new jobs in 2018, and most of its engineering jobs are already filled by folks transferred from other states, so turning away tens of thousands of students isn’t the answer.
Besides, the Technical College System of Georgia can’t merely take those turned away from traditional colleges because the tech schools have their on challenges with completion rates.
So engagement is the favored prescription. That means getting students engaged with campus life so they can’t easily slip through cracks.
Most colleges now throw parties, cookouts and concerts to draw freshmen into campus and help them make friends. Potts said some professors are even calling the roll each day and contacting absent students -- something that used to seem unnecessary for adults.
Potts wanted to base funding on completion-rate improvement. “What is rewarded is what gets done,” he said. But statewide budget cutting scuttled his plans.
Although budgets are still lean, Deal has revived the idea.
As Potts suggests, money talks, and it may be the loudest voice in improving graduation rates.
If nothing else, Deal at least is showing he cares as much as other policymakers before him.