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Regents Closely Examining Retention/Graduation Issues

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Atlanta — January 9, 2002

The Board of Regents must gain a better understanding of the barriers to retaining and graduating students enrolled in the University System of Georgia, according to a presentation made at today’s board meeting by Dr. Daniel L. Papp, senior vice chancellor for academics and fiscal affairs.

“We have a number of institutions with special programming that have been very successful in increasing retention and graduation rates, but we’re not doing everything we need to do,” Papp noted. “The bottom line is that we need more research on why students drop out or leave. We need to hear what the students have to say to increase our understanding.”

Papp led the regents in a discussion aimed at shaping new policies that will enhance student retention and graduation rates. The discussion, which follows on the heels of earlier presentations to the Board of Regents on increasing access to public higher education, will help the regents develop specific strategies over the next few months to support the board’s new strategic plan. Improving student retention and graduation rates were top priorities included among 11 goal statements the Board of Regents adopted last September as part of that plan.

National statistics show that the most critical point for losing students is at the end of the freshman year. An extensive benchmarking process undertaken by the Board of Regents during the last two years revealed that University System institutions are on par with peer groups in other states regarding freshman-to-sophomore-year retention.

The University System of Georgia lost about 24 percent of its first-year freshmen in 2000. “Nationally, the average loss was 21 percent,” Papp said, “but our retention rate has improved from 66 percent in 1984 to 76 percent in 2000, perhaps due to the raising of admission standards.”

A host of factors influence retention rates, including student academic performance, student academic motivation, student goals, student fit with an institution and institutional attitudes, programs, and initiatives. Papp cautioned against comparing the rates of different institutions without carefully studying their characteristics.

University System benchmarking data also indicate that full-time students have a retention rate roughly 30 percent higher than part-time students, but there is virtually no difference in the rate at which various ethnic groups are retained at the end of their first year.

When it comes to graduation rates, the picture is quite different. “We don’t do too badly in keeping students after the first year, but we seem to be losing them sometime between the sophomore year and graduation,” Papp said.

While four-year graduation rates within the System are for the most part in line with those of peer institutions elsewhere, six-year graduation rates at many of the System’s universities lag behind. System data also reveals significant differences in terms of race and gender - white female students have significantly higher six-year graduation rates than do white males, who have higher rates than black females and much higher graduation rates than black males.

Papp said good student advisement programs have proven themselves critical to improving retention, as have “Freshman Year Experience” programs that ease the often-rough transition to college life. He identified a number of other “best practices,” including:

  • Surveying students to determine their needs; tracking their performance and offering assistance when it drops off;
  • Creating learning communities in which students advance through school with a familiar cohort of fellow students;
  • Helping faculty members learn to communicate better with their students;
  • Offering student services during off-hours to accommodate unconventional schedules; and
  • Generally creating a more student-friendly atmosphere on campus.

Papp recommended the creation of Sophomore Experience and academic intervention programs. He also suggested that System officials conduct more extensive research on the issues that affect retention and graduation, increase accountability for the System’s goals in these areas at the institutional level, and develop Systemwide programs and policies aimed at reinforcing the board’s strategic emphases.

“We need to figure out what the barriers to retention and graduation are and how to overcome them in order to achieve our goal of a more educated Georgia,” Papp concluded.

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