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Study: Southern Regional Education Board States Lag Behind in Completion Rates

Southern Regional Educational Board (SREB) states continue to lag behind the rest of the nation in college completion rates, according to a new SREB report. Authors of the report, “Measuring Success by Degrees: The Status of College Completion in SREB States,” argue that although they continue to progress in key areas, these modest gains may not be enough to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive workforce.

It is estimated that by 2012, at least 60 percent of new jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. And as other nations outpace the United States in educational attainment, ensuring college completion should be a major priority, the authors argue.

“The region’s economic prospects may very well depend on more aggressive efforts to raise degree- and certificate-completion rates,” write the authors.

Overall, most SREB states have a lower percentage of adults 25 and older who have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Nationwide, 29 percent of White adults have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 27 percent in SREB states.

Half of SREB states saw an encouraging increase in first-year persistence rates, or the percentage of freshman students who enroll in school for a second year. 

“If first-year students do not continue immediately into their second year, they are much less likely to ever complete a degree,” the authors write.

When looking at the number of high school students who move on to college, the authors found a mixture of encouraging and discouraging data. The percentage of high school graduates who enrolled in college gradually increased from 57 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2008. Yet fewer than half of ninth graders in SREB states will enroll in college by the time they turn 19.

Jeff Gagne, director for education policy at SREB, says that lack of guidance may contribute to many students’ failure to either attend or complete college.

“Students nowadays, of all backgrounds, are first generation students,” he says. “There’s not a lot of intuitiveness about what attending college is like, how to get there, and how to pay for it.”

A greater percentage of students are earning degrees or certificates at two- and four-year colleges, though graduation rates in SREB states lag behind the national rate. At four-year colleges, 53 percent of students complete a degree within six years. But traditional graduation rates can be misleading. Often, such reports exclude students who transfer, change their majors, or simply take time off.

“College graduation rates are deeply flawed, so you have to take them with a grain of salt,” says Gagne.

For instance, when taking into account the number of students who transfer, remain enrolled at their original institutions, or graduate within six years, the percentage of students who complete a degree jumps to 75 percent.

Additionally, the report highlights important demographic changes in SREB states as well as nationwide. According to estimates, there will be 50 million more Hispanic Americans by 2035, and an expected increase of 10 million African-Americans. Yet Black and Hispanic students account for only 22 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of all high school graduates.

As a result, Black and Hispanic students are considerably less likely to have bachelor’s degrees. Thirty-nine percent of Black students and 44 percent of Hispanic students graduate from four-year public universities. For two-year colleges, 13 percent of Black students and 14 percent of Hispanic students graduate.

“Weak high school graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students mean that too many of these students never get far enough in school to have the opportunity to attend college,” write the authors.

“States should set very specific goals for increasing completion levels for various types of degree and certificates, and making a stabilizing plan to get there,” says Crystal Collins, a research associate at SREB and chief author of the report. “The higher education system and leaders to be held accountable for increasing the number of degrees and certificates produced each year.”

The authors caution that all kinds of postsecondary study should be encouraged, not just at the baccalaureate level.

“There are a multitude of opportunities outside of the traditional liberal arts, four-year bachelors’ degree,” says Collins.

William Symonds, who heads the Pathway to Prosperity Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, agrees. He says the United States tends to exaggerate the importance of four-year colleges. In reality, he says, two out of three jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree.

“The U.S., as a whole, has not put enough resources into alternatives to four-year colleges,” he says.

Instead, says Symonds, students should be encouraged to pursue certificates or associate’s degrees. States also should work with local businesses to provide apprenticeship programs, which offer structured, on-the-job training after high school.

“It’ll work better for many of these students and it’s a far less expensive route,” he says. 

Still, says Gagne, regardless of the paths they take to achieve their career goals, everyone should have an opportunity to attend college. To do that, all students must be on an equal playing field.

“We’re still trying to exit the yesteryear when college was for the elite,” he says. “College needs to be for most of us.”

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