Closing the graduation gap

Jackie Valley

A new alliance of states aims to turn more students into grads

Kevin Justen paid $7,000 in flight fees on top of tuition and room and board during his year at Kent State — money that ultimately led him to drop out of college this semester.

Now, the Toledo native is in the military reserves as a senior airman for the Air Force, hoping to make money through deployments.

“I plan on going back eventually, but probably not in the same major,” said Justen, a former aviation and flight technology major who struggled to get loans last fall.

Justen’s situation mirrors that of many Ohio students who, for a variety of reasons, start but don’t graduate college. Only 51 percent of Ohioans who pursue education beyond high school earn a degree within six years, according to Complete College America, a new alliance aiming to fix what is also a nationwide problem.

Ohio recently joined the alliance, along with 16 other states, to explore ways to boost the state’s graduation rate — a key component of Chancellor Eric Fingerhut’s strategic plan for higher education.

Since Fingerhut unveiled Ohio’s blueprint for higher education almost two years ago, he said progress has been visible in the plan’s three main goals: graduate more people, keep them in Ohio after graduation and attract more talent to Ohio. But it will take more time to see numbers move dramatically.

“I want Ohioans to not only know how we’re doing but how we compare to other states,” he said, referring to one benefit of joining the alliance.

Ohio currently ranks 35th among states for the number of people ages 25-64 who possess a bachelor’s degree. Thirty-six percent of young adults in Ohio have a college degree, according to Complete College America.

Tom Sugar, senior vice president for Complete College America, said those numbers need to increase, especially given the changing landscape of the U.S. economy. Sixty percent of U.S. jobs will require education beyond high school by 2020, he said.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you go (to college) but have nothing to show for it,” Sugar said. “You just end up in debt.”

The alliance, which officially launched in March, will meet for the first time in May to set state goals and create common ways to measure progress, Sugar said. It also will explore policy levers to accommodate today’s students and create public reporting systems that give information about state schools.

“Our higher education institutions are designed for students that were traditional students 40 years ago — the residential student, the full-time student,” Sugar said. “That only represents 25 percent of college students in America today.”

Today’s students often balance school, work and families, which force many students to drop out because of affordability or scheduling issues.

“It’s a struggle to make it to graduation day when you’re juggling so many balls,” he said.

Sugar said the alliance will look at specific ways to help students graduate college, such as putting a cap on the number of credit hours required to graduate and altering college class schedules to make it easier for students to handle work and family responsibilities as well.

Among the states already in the alliance, Sugar said Ohio is a leader in higher education reform.

“We really have to reinvent higher education and give serious consideration to new models,” Sugar said. “One of the best ways to cut college costs is to graduate college on time.”

At Kent State’s main campus, the graduation rate for first-time, full-time freshmen has increased about 1 percent for the past few years, according to data from Research, Planning and Institutional Effectiveness. About 50 percent of freshmen in 2003 earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, the state’s benchmark for measuring graduation rates.

Provost Robert Frank expects that upward trend to continue, based largely on Kent State’s recent efforts to track students’ progress, improve advising and identify students at risk of failing or dropping out of college.

“We believe (graduation rates) should go up,” he said. “We want it to see it in the 60s and eventually the 70s.”

To help foster these improvements, Fingerhut said he hopes the alliance will lobby Washington for funding to aid cash-strapped states like Ohio.

“I think we are going to be working together to get help at the federal level,” Fingerhut said. “It is an important aspect to say that funding at the federal level should focus on states putting an emphasis on higher education.”

In the meantime, Justen, who will be deployed to South Korea this summer, knows the road back to college won’t be easy.

“Everybody was trying to get me to stay in because once you get out of college and take a semester or two off, it’s hard to go back,” he said.

Sugar hopes the growing Complete College America alliance eventually helps stem that problem — making sure students enrolled in college make it through to graduation day.

“Access (to college) is a wonderful thing,” he said. “But access without success is a broken promise, a missed opportunity.”

Contact enterprise reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].