Augusta State University is in the midst of developing and implementing a plan to increase student retention by "meeting students where they stand."
During a recent meeting with faculty, President William A. Bloodworth Jr. announced that retention rates - the number of students who graduate in six years or fewer - will receive special emphasis this school year.
Low retention rates are nothing new and certainly not isolated to Augusta State, said Ray Whiting, the special assistant to the vice president of academic affairs, who has worked on a committee to study the problem.
According to the 2003 retention rates, the most recent available, Augusta State's rate was 20.2 percent, meaning that about one in five students graduates in six years.
That's low, but in the midrange when put up against comparable universities, Dr. Whiting said. Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., for instance, has a rate of 19.8 percent, and Columbus State University has a rate of 24.5 percent.
Augusta State is "taking ownership" of the problem and recognizing that it must address the needs of its students to enable them to graduate, Dr. Whiting said.
Economics is central to the myriad causes that have led to the low retention rates, he said.
"The students in the past - their job was to be a college student," he said.
Now, many students attend college full time while also working 20 or 30 hours a week, Dr. Whiting said. Students have had to work more hours to make up for reductions in financial aid.
The university is countering this through comprehensive advising, identifying at-risk students and addressing retention issues in other ways.
The biggest drop in retention occurs after the freshman year, Dr. Whiting said. That's when the "reality of college is met head-on" and students feel the economic and academic pressures.
Freshmen and sophomores will get more personalized, comprehensive advising, which should steer them away from courses they don't need and keep them on track for earning a degree, Dr. Whiting said.
The university is also providing more academic support to students, he said.
One such service that has seen a tremendous amount of traffic in its first year is the university's math lab, a free tutoring service, he said.
"We believe that if we are able to improve academic success we will be able to improve retention," Dr. Whiting said.
Charlotte Sturgis, a 31-year-old majoring in computer science and biology, visits the math lab.
"They don't just give you answers," she said. "They actually help you through it. Without this, I would have to pay for (tutoring), which I have."
She also gets free tutoring in Spanish and computer programming from the university, she said.
Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.