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Colleges and universities must guide students toward graduation

Ed McKinney, Community Voices • Oct 2, 2019 at 7:15 AM

Let’s take a moment and look at how successful colleges and universities are in educating and granting degrees to students who have chosen to spend thousands of dollars for a diploma. Do they meet the same graduation success rate that high schools are mandated to achieve? If you are granted a degree from a college or university will you have financial success?

Those questions and more can be answered by looking at the school data provided to the federal government at the National Center for Education Statistics. The following table shows the GSR for the number of graduates after entering the college or university in 2012 and graduating four or six years later based on the latest data available.

School GSR 4 years later (2016) GSR 6 years later (2018)
East Tennessee State University 23% 45%
Milligan College 63% 70%
King University 34% 45%
Tusculum University 17% 31%
University of Tennessee 49% 73%
Vanderbilt University 89% 94%
*Per the College Navigator at the National Center for Education Statistics for students entering in 2012

When you look at the percentages that graduate within a four- or even a six-year period, you can see that most universities or colleges may need to provide a stronger support system for getting all students to the graduation line.

In the table, only Vanderbilt University shows a significant percentage of graduating students within a six-year period. It also means that their retention levels after the first year are high. The latest data from the fall of 2017 shows Vanderbilt University retention rate was 97% of first-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree. ETSU had a retention rate of 76%. The University of Tennessee had a retention rate of 86%. Milligan College had 76%. King University had 70% and Tusculum University had a retention rate of 65%. All schools have a stated retention rate goal higher than those listed. The question then is how do universities/colleges achieve their goals?

The federal graduation rate includes only first-time, full-time students. More than half of all bachelor degree recipients attend more than one college, and millions of students who transferred or enrolled part-time are excluded every year. Because a student entering as a freshman and later transferring to another institution is counted as having never graduated that makes the data more suspect when transfer students are ignored in the data.

It becomes important to the school to get all incoming freshmen to stay with their original school choice. If you have a low retention number for year two, then the school’s graduation percentage will never reach higher numbers, nor will the data correctly state a school’s success.

After one year some students find that a transfer would provide a better fit for the career they seek to follow. In addition, in any given year the school may find more transfers into their school than transfers out of their school. The fewer students who transfer out means the admission/selection process was more successful. Likewise, it means that students did a better job of selecting their college/university of choice.

The more successful a public school is in graduating students in a reasonable amount of time should demand additional funding levels from the state governing bodies. That would provide an incentive to grow a college or university because of its successes. Private schools may find donations growing because of their successes. Most schools have academic advisers who can support academic achievement.

The data reveals a significant number of students either do not graduate or they take longer than six years to complete their degrees. Taking longer to complete a degree drives the cost of getting that degree even higher. It also may indicate that the institution may be doing a poor job of assisting students to the finish line in a timely fashion.

The story is slightly different when you examine student athlete’s graduation success rates.

The NCAA has always been interested in student athletes’ success by tracking grades, minimum credit hours per year and progress toward being awarded a degree from member schools. In Division I schools the NCAA tracks student athletes who enter college with financial aid and graduate within six years. In Division II, the NCAA tracks the academic success of all student athletes. Because Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships they are not required to report rates. Even though it is not required to report student athlete’s success, the NCAA does encourage schools to report data on a voluntary basis.

NCAA-member schools are provided revenue from the organization to help student athletes succeed in the classroom through technology, tutoring and access to academic advisers.

Beginning with the 2019-20 academic year, Division I schools' share of NCAA’s revenue will be tied to academic achievement. This will be the first time the amount of money received from NCAA for student academic support will be determined by the student athlete’s academic achievement. This will allow member schools to receive more funds if they have higher GSR and academic success. Currently, more than 80% of Division I schools’ athletes are earning bachelor’s degrees.

The evidence suggests that when properly funded and maintained, the GSR is higher for student athletes based on the data from the NCAA. All schools need to have personnel whose job is to monitor all students’ academic success and provide needed support to students who may find themselves in academic trouble. Students on campus should know where the office is located and the kind of support they can expect to receive when it may be needed. Then the GSR goals of a university or college will be achieved.

Ed McKinney of Johnson City is a retired business educator.

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