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Graduation Task Force Reports to Regents

Leadership, Student Engagement and Good Use of Existing Resources Key to Improvement

Atlanta — October 12, 2010

While the reasons college students have difficulty staying enrolled and graduating are many, complex and often interconnected, the answers to improving graduation rates can be boiled down to three key factors: leadership, student engagement and the appropriate use of existing resources.

That is the top line summary of an in-progress report the University System of Georgia (USG) Board of Regents received from the Graduation Rate Task Force, led by Board Chair Regent Willis Potts.

As a result, the Board of Regents will step up its ongoing oversight and assessment of institutional plans and results related to retention and graduation rates.

“The regents will continue to monitor the progress towards improvement each and every year,” said Potts. “This year’s effort was not a one-time flash in the pan activity. Improvement requires continuous senior-level oversight and the Board of Regents will provide that oversight as part of its responsibilities,” he said.

The task force, comprised of several regents, senior USG staff members, USG presidents and others, met individually with all 35 System institutional presidents over the past nine months.

The purpose of the task force was to identify issues surrounding the System’s lower than desired retention and graduation rates for its 35 institutions and to ensure each college had plans and metrics to achieve improvement in these two important areas.

While the USG has seen a 25.5 percent increase in graduation rates since fiscal year 2002, and the overall System six-year bachelor’s degree graduation rate is 58.9 percent for the 2003 class, System officials want to see this percentage continue to increase.

Potts said, “We challenged each president to bring data to show where they’ve been, where they are and to present plans to show how they will move to improve retention and graduation rates.” Potts continued, “As a governing board, the regents have a responsibility to the state’s citizens and the University System’s students to ensure its public colleges are achieving the highest possible graduation rates in the shortest period of time with no degradation in the quality of education.”

Today’s briefing, delivered by Dr. Stas Preczewski, vice president for Academic & Student Affairs at Georgia Gwinnett College, identified common challenges and themes raised during the presidents’ one-hour sessions.

These included acknowledgements that their institutions have been focused more on making college accessible to more Georgia students and less on ensuring enrolled students are retained and graduated; underutilization of available data to define impediments to graduation and the effectiveness of retention programs; and poor communication among the K-12 system and the two- and four-year colleges and universities concerning academic performance expectations.

Preczewski next cited pockets of excellence found at several USG institutions. These included such programs as enhanced academic advising by faculty, peer mentoring, early identification of at-risk students for subsequent enhanced instructional opportunities, structured first-year programs to enhance freshman retention rates and the use of specialized “Learning Communities.” These communities have been linked to improved retention rates.

“These programs have a common theme: to increase the engagement of students with their campuses,” noted Preczewski.

“It is impossible to graduate a student who fails to retain at a college past their freshman year. Accordingly, schools must enact programs that have been empirically shown to engage students, improve retention and logically, improve the likelihood of college completion,” said Preczewski.

Preczewski wrapped up the briefing by presenting recommendations from the task force. These include:

  • The development of annual assessment tools used to review institutional progress toward established improvement in retention/graduation performance;

  • Establishing ties between performance rate improvement and resource allocation; and

  • The identification of additional performance measures to capture student movement among colleges both within and external to the USG to account for students who complete their degrees at institutions other than where they began their academic careers.

Potts noted that several presidents needed more than one presentation to convince the task force that problems had been properly identified or that presented plans were adequate in ensuring improvement would occur.

Those institutions returned months later and presented plans that were accepted by the task force. Potts concluded that it all boils down to effective institutional leadership, enhanced student engagement, and the strategic use of scarce resources.

“Leadership from the very top that sends the clear message to everyone within the institution that helping students succeed and then ensuring that they do succeed is the essential factor,” said Potts.

The task force concluded that the evidence then is clear that strong student engagement programs work, given this leadership focus, Potts said.

Given continuing tight budgets, institutions must make retention and graduation a priority, using existing resources, Potts said. “Our funding partners expect us to graduate students as part of our basic mission; they are not going to provide special funds to accomplish what we should accomplish from the resources we have.”

“Combined properly, these factors will ultimately lead to significant improvements in graduation rates in the near-term,” Potts said.

The Retention and Graduation Task Force grew out of the board’s 2007 Strategic Plan, specifically goal one of that plan, which calls for increasing graduation rates as part of the goal’s overall focus on renewing excellence in undergraduate education. The current task force builds upon the work of a 2007 presidential task force on this issue, chaired by former Georgia Southern University President Dr. Bruce Grube.

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