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State universities look for graduation rate improvements

By MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Auburn University at Montgomery recently implemented “intrusive advising” on campus. 

Students at risk of not doing well academically have to meet with an advisor to talk through their progress, whether they want to or not.

“We try to get to the student early to find out why they’re struggling,” Auburn Montgomery Chancellor Carl Stockton recently told Alabama Daily News. Do they not understand the material? Are they working too much to pay tuition and other bills? Or is it something else?

“It they’re honest with us, we have ways to help those students,” Stockton said.

But getting to them early is key to their success, and though it is improving, the Capital City commuter university’s graduation rate still lags behind. Of all the first-year, full-time students who entered Auburn Montgomery in 2011, 28 percent graduated within six years. 

AUM is not alone among state institutions. And as the Alabama Legislature looks to move toward performance-based funding for state universities, campus leaders are eager to show improvements.

The national average for more than 2,300 universities was 55.5%. Only two Alabama universities — the Auburn University and the University of Alabama flagship campuses — did better than that national average. 

Several state universities told Alabama Daily News their rates have improved in recent years and highlighted plans to build upon those gains. Some noted their missions to educate Alabama students, even those unprepared for college, as a factor in their rates.

Jim Purcell, Executive Director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, pointed to some statewide initiatives to get more students to graduate, including stressing 15-credit hour semesters and more financial aid opportunities.

“Often, time is the enemy,” Purcell said.

The Commission recently began publishing university “accountability metrics” on its website, including graduation rates. University leaders met for more than a year about how to assess their performances.

SchoolGraduation rate, 2011 cohort*Transfer Rate, 2011 cohort**Students w/ Pell Grants, 2016-17
ASU28%Not Available74%
JSU37%Not Available38%
North Alabama45%33%40%
South Alabama40%35%37%
West Alabama33%27%53%

*Athens State University is not included because it is transfer institution for students who began their education elsewhere.

**Graduation rates of first-year, full-time students entering a university in 2011 and completing a degree within six years.

Source: National Center for Educational Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

Accountability at all levels of public education has become a focus for some state leaders in Montgomery and soon at least some university funding could be tied to graduation rates. The state will allocate about $1.2 billion to the 14 public universities in its 2019-2020 education budget.

Graduation rates of 20 and 30-some percent rates aren’t acceptable, the Senate education budget chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said recently.

“If we’re — the taxpayers — investing in students, in their high education, but they’re not receiving degrees, we’re not getting a good return on our investment,” Orr said. “Meanwhile, the students, who may be going into debt, are’t receiving a return on their investments.” 

Orr said it’s “very possible” a framework for outcome-based funding for the state’s four-year colleges will be finalized in the 2020 legislation session. 

Besides graduation rates, a funding formula could include factors like student-teacher ratios and debt load, Orr said.

Funding factor

State lawmakers passed a record-high education budget in the recently-concluded legislative session. However, while the K-12 portion was funded at or above pre-recession levels, the higher education portion was not. Each state university received a funding increase of at least 6%, but overall funding still lags behind what it did in the mid-to-late 2000s.

Gordon Stone, who advocates for state university funding as the Executive Director of the Alabama Higher Education Partnership, said boosting state funding is key to improving graduation rates.

“If we increase state funding to universities, we lower the pressure that we have on tuition, fees, and ultimately student debt – and that’s important,” Stone said.

“The reality is that the numbers can be a little misleading. But, if we had more resources we could help these students catch up, and what we don’t want to do is discourage them from pursuing that four-year degree that gives them that greater income potential.”

The University of North Alabama specifically cited funding when talking about graduation rates. At UNA, the graduation rate for the 2012 enrollees increased to 46 percent, officials said.

“Unlike many peer institutions in the state, UNA is growing and launching new, in-demand programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels that lead directly to good jobs,” in myriad sectors, UNA Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Ross Alexander said.

“More than 85% of all UNA students are Alabama residents, and more than two-thirds choose to remain in Alabama to pursue careers. The university is quite proud that its six-year graduation rate is improving, as it will be one important criterion for eventual performance funding.”

Purcell has said some universities have been underfunded by the state. Alexander said UNA is 63% funded compared to its national peers.

“So, despite this historic pattern of underfunding, UNA is growing, adding relevant programs, increasing its graduation rate through an intentional strategy, and educating the current and future workforce of Alabama,” Alexander said.

Pell factor

Several universities told ADN that if they’re going to be judged by their graduation rates, the number of Pell Grant recipients they enroll needs to be considered.

Federal Pell Grants usually are awarded only to undergraduate students who display “exceptional financial need,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. Unlike loans, Pell Grants don’t have to be repaid. But the grants don’t cover the tab for most educations. The maximum Federal Pell Grant for the 2019–20 award year is $6,195.

At every Alabama university, Pell Grant recipients are significantly less likely to graduate within six years than students without the grants or subsidized loans, according to ACHE data.

Alabama A&M University and Alabama State University have the highest percentage of students with Pell Grants. They also have some of the lowest graduation rates.

“Some students face more barriers to college completion than others,” ASU President Quinton Ross told Alabama Daily News. “Research has shown that students who are the first in their family to attend college, and come from families that lack the monetary resources to financially support their education, face particular challenges in college, making it more difficult to complete. In addition, some students arrive on college campuses less academically prepared and have to complete additional work, which takes more time.

“Approximately 75% of ASU students come from low-income households, and as many as 50% are first-generation students.  Additionally, a large number of our students are from under-resourced K-12 school systems, resulting in some requiring additional academic support.”

At Alabama A&M, 71% percent of students receive Pell Grants and 37% are first-generation college students, according to spokesman Jerome Saintjones.

“Institutions that strive for accessibility tend to have lower graduation rates nationally, while those that are more selective have higher rates,” Saintjones said in an emailed statement.

“States that are serious about social mobility should provide greater resources and support for institutions that seek to expand access to underrepresented populations,” Saintjones said.  “As a public (Historically Black College and Univeristy), the core of our mission speaks to access and opportunity, and we remain committed to this cause. While we continue to work toward improving our graduation rate, our current graduation rate is reflective of our mission.”

Auburn University had the highest graduation rate in the state at 77%, according to recent data. The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa had the second-highest graduation rate at 68%. Auburn and Alabama also have the first and second lowest percentage of students with Pell Grants, respectively.

“Universities that are more selective like Alabama and Auburn would have a greater graduations rates,” Purcell said. That’s the national trend. 

That should be taken into account, Orr said. The performance-based funding formula won’t compare universities’ graduation to one another, but improvements should be expected Orr said.

“We have to realize that some schools have higher needs,” he said.

“It’s unreasonable and unfair to say that all publicly-supported institutions need to be at 70%.”

Transfer-out rates

At the University of West Alabama, the 33% graduation rate is one advisors are working to improve, focusing especially on early intervention with freshmen and sophomores. 

But Richard Hester, UWA’s Vice President for Student Affairs, said another number is important.

For the entering freshman in 2011, 27% transferred to another university.

“The (graduation rate) formula does not allow us to count the graduates in the two-year programs that we offer in the School of Nursing or the College of Business and Technology,” Hester said.

AUM’s Stockton agreed that smaller schools get penalized by the transfer rates.

“Those kids count as dropouts for us,” he said.

The University of West Alabama is a rural, low-income, high-poverty area. 

“A great many of our students will come to UWA and no other university,” President Ken Tucker told Alabama Daily News. “Or stated differently, if they don’t come to us to get a higher education, they don’t go anywhere else to attend college. We provide them with the knowledge, skills, ability, and confidence to embark on a good career with good benefits, where they can make meaningful contributions to their community, the economy, and society in general.”

“… The important thing to keep in mind about performance based funding is that all schools are not created equal.  There are major differences in mission and role, as well as student populations, which will certainly impact performance measures.  As long as these and other factors are objectively accounted for, the performance-based funding model can be successful.”

Making improvements

Several universities said their graduation rates have improved in recent years and continue to do so, according to the yet-unpublished 2012 enrollee data.

According to AUM, their graduation rate has improved from 22% to 34% for first-year, full-time students.

Six years ago, Jacksonville State University’s graduation rate was 29%. The ACHE published number is 37% and the school said the most recent number is 39%.

The university pointed to expanded tutoring services, a better method for determining freshmen’s math placement and readiness and a “Grades First” early alert system to identify and support struggling students “before they reach a point of non-recovery.”

In a written response from JSU, officials said that if the Alabama Legislature plans to implement a performance-based funding approach, the university hopes metrics are developed that are based on fair and accurate data points.

“As a regional university, JSU has a large population of first-generation college students,” the statement said. “Our students have less support than those from larger flagship schools and are often working multiple jobs and even supporting a family while attending college. Many of our students are pulling themselves out of poverty and lifting entire families, neighborhoods and communities along with them. Therefore, they often need more time to reach their academic and career goals.”

Students need support

Stockton, the AUM Chancellor, said about his students what several regional universities told ADN.

“The challenge really is, for us, the students that come to AUM really need a lot of support,” he said.

“You take in a student with 32 ACT (score), whose family has gone to college, who doesn’t have to work, they are going to be more successful,” Stockton said.

But that’s not always the situation of AUM students.

In the 2016—2017 academic year, 44 percent of AUM students received Pell Grants. More than half the student population are first-generation college enrollees, and most students qualify for some other form of financial aid.

“Being a student-centered campus means paying attention to our students,” Stockton said.

Knowing what’s going on with students is what Orr said state leaders want from universities.

“When Johnny doesn’t show up for class for two weeks, is he at the bars, or is he at home caring for a sick parent because he’s the only one who can?” Orr said.

“… Schools need to not just take a tuition check, but be invested in the whole student.”

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