The truth about graduation rates

You never know what will interest people.

As I write this (Sept. 13), the second-most-commented-on article in The Augusta Chronicle online is the one about the graduation rate at Augusta State University. That was the front-page piece titled "ASU grad rate worst in Georgia" - a statement that was corrected by the paper the next day - and then became the subject of the "Graduation daze" editorial.

As president of the university, I'm pleased to see this much attention to our students and their academic performance. In fact, the only other article to receive more comment by readers is one entitled "Talkative parrot Booger Bear keeps family entertained." In terms of public interest, ASU is in high company.

And both the article and the editorial are worth reading because they point out some serious challenges to educational attainment in our community, and in our nation - a matter to which I'll return.

But some explanation and comments about graduation rates might be in order first.

To begin with, as both Chronicle pieces suggest, the graduation rate at a university is hardly a good measure of its performance. What counts is learning, which is produced by high expectations of students. What graduation should mean - and does mean at ASU - is that students have earned the honor by achieving a high level of learning. After all, colleges and universities are called institutions of "higher learning."

If higher graduation rates were the primary measure, they could be achieved by one or both of two easy ways, the first being a dramatic increase in the standards of admission. That would also produce far fewer students overall and, almost certainly, a higher percentage of students from wealthy backgrounds (because family wealth is one of the best statistical predictors of academic success).

The other easy way is to make college easier. The side effect, of course, would be a serious devaluation of the college degree and the emergence of an institution of lower learning.

There are ways to improve graduation rates that are not easy - and we're actually doing them. In fact, we've always been doing them, and are always looking to do them even better. These include advising, mentoring and the engaging of students in university activities beyond the classroom. But the most important way to improve graduation rates is our focus on student learning itself. We do other things as well, including service and research, but almost everything feeds back into student learning.

On this topic, Chronicle readers might want to note the extraordinary performance of our students (actually "best in class" among our institutional peers) on the state-mandated Regents' Examination in reading comprehension and written composition as well as high scores on licensure exams.

But readers should understand that institutions where very high percentages of students live at home will always have lower graduation rates than those where most of the students have "gone off" to college. At ASU, it is easy for full-time students to become part-time students, remain psychologically connected to the university even during semesters when they "stop out," and take more years to earn degrees than do students who go to college away from home.

The largest issue behind these matters is how to improve educational attainment. Neither here nor in the nation as a whole is there much to brag about on this issue. I've seen statistics pointing out that more than 20 other industrialized nations show greater progress in upping their college attainments. In communities such as Augusta, where large numbers of potential college students come from low-income families with little family experience in college, getting a college education is far from guaranteed - and this matter should be of concern to us all. The correlation between high educational attainment and quality of life in a community is undeniable.

ASU is on the front lines in attacking this issue. We offer the opportunity of college broadly to this community. We assist all who qualify and seek to take advantage of that opportunity. We make sure that an ASU degree certifies "higher education."

And in doing so, I think we add extraordinary value to this community. Perhaps that's what all the interest in the "grad rate" items in The Chronicle really means.

The writer became president of Augusta State University in October 1993.