Dr. Schwenn: Putting Graduation Rates Into Perspective

Friday, December 20, 2013 - by Dr. John O. Schwenn, President of Dalton State College
Dr. John O. Schwenn
Dr. John O. Schwenn

Our highest aspirational goal for all our students is graduation, preferably with a degree from Dalton State. 

More than ever, a college degree is essential to success in the workplace and in life. We are told that by 2020 –less than seven short years from now — more than 60 percent of jobs in Georgia will require education past high school; today, only 42 percent of our current workforce meets that qualification. The state of Georgia is expected to produce nearly 250,000 additional college graduates in the next few years to meet anticipated workforce demand. 

Whereas enrollment was our objective for many, many years, our immediate goal now is to retain students semester to semester, with the ultimate goal of graduating them to either the world of work or to graduate school. We are held increasingly accountable for the number of students we retain and graduate; in fact, in 2016 our funding from the state will be determined in large part by the number of students we graduate.

So how do we measure graduation rates? It’s more complicated than it sounds. 

Only students who begin Dalton State as freshmen attending school full-time are tracked through to graduation. This is a universal standard. That cohort –first-time, full-time freshmen — is the only group of students considered when determining a school’s graduation rates; for bachelor’s degree candidates, measurements are taken after four years and six years. 

Does that describe the typical Dalton State student? No. While we are trending towards more full-time students (61 percent today compared to 43 percent 10 years ago), many of our students still attend school part-time, juggling school with work and family responsibilities. Those students are not counted in our graduation rates.  

Neither are students who transfer from Dalton State as in our 2+2 program with Georgia Tech in which students take two years of core classes here before transferring to Georgia Tech where they earn the bachelor’s degree in engineering two years later. Those students are not reflected in the graduation statistics of either Dalton State or Georgia Tech.

Students who start here and then “stop out” for military service before coming back to Dalton State to finish their studies are not counted in our graduation rates; nor are students who transfer into Dalton State from any other college or university. 

You can think of the cohort as being like passengers on a train bound from Atlanta, Georgia to Dallas, Texas. Everyone gets on in Atlanta at the same time and most get off in Dallas together. The Dalton State cohort is more like a subway – there’s a lot of getting on and off along the way; not so many travel straight through from the first stop to the end of the line.

The train cohort works when you are talking about the full-time residential student who starts college right out of high school and has their education paid for by their parents. But that demographic fits only about 25 percent of today’s college students. Most students are like Dalton State students, fitting classes into the rest of their busy lives like passengers getting on and off the subway. 

When applying the standard measure of first-time, full-time students earning a Dalton State degree within four or six years, our graduation rate is low. We are working hard to improve it and are making incremental progress that we believe will result in a higher rate.

Our retention rate has risen nine percent in the last two years. Our new, tighter admission standards mean we are enrolling students who have a better chance of succeeding here. By pairing our remedial English class with a First Year Experience class that teaches basic college skills to freshmen, we have increased the first time pass rate in remedial English from 28 percent two years ago to nearly 80 percent today. We are piloting a similar program in mathematics. We are implementing better strategies for advising and monitoring student progress to reduce our Drop/Fail/Withdrawal rate – we’ve already seen dramatic improvement. 

We are also working to get a more meaningful metric that better reflects the success we see among our students. The number we prefer to point to is 714; that’s the number of students proudly graduating with a Dalton State degree in the past year, many of them not included in that first-time, full-time cohort.

Dr. John O. Schwenn is the President of Dalton State College.

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