Multiple causes given as reasons for low graduation rates

By Hannah Shaw and Gabrielle Chevalier, Chattanooga, TN–The University’s 2006-2012 Six Year Persistence to Graduate Rate was 38 percent, meaning

Photo by Mary Gower
Study session: Ethan Simmons, a senior from Sequatchie, Tenn., utilizes the new UC seating accommodations to finish his assignments for his next class. Simmons often comes to the UC to study.

graduation rates are low, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the public universities in Tennessee use the Six-Year Persistence to Graduation Rate system  to calculate the percentage of UTC freshmen who graduate within six years of their initial enrollments.

Rates have been steadily dropping since the 1998–2004 period, where the persistence rating was highest at 47.53 percent, according to the University website.

“Over the past few years, we have been taking steps to improve retention, and thereby, improve graduation rates. Obviously, we want our graduation rate to be better,” Chuck Cantrell, associate vice chancellor for communication and marketing, said.

The fall-to-fall retention rate for freshmen entering in fall 2011 was 67 percent, he said.

Factors that can influence students’ persistence to graduation include availability of classes, costs, making connections to campus, making connections to faculty, career opportunities in a specific major and other factors, Cantrell said.

Freshmen often drop out due to  of lack of connections with others on the campus, costs associated with college and lack of focus.

“We have implemented some strategies to improve freshman retention and we are seeing some improvement,” Cantrell said.

One strategy the University has begun to place more focus on is an examination of the DWF rates, or the rates of students who receive a D or F or withdraw from a course, Fran Bender, assistant provost for student retention and success, said.

“We are trying to figure out what seems to be a barrier to student persistence,” she said. “If there are a huge number of students in a course who can’t get by then obviously that is a barrier.”

Bender said when looking at such data, she has to keep in mind that she does not have the reason for the low rates, but she thinks the information is useful nevertheless.

Graduation rates are not only important, but they factor into funding for the University.

Before the Tennessee Complete College Act went into effect, campuses were funded based on the number of students who enrolled in a campus and not on the number of who graduate.

To improve outcomes and to focus efforts on graduating more Tennesseans, the funding formula has been changed.

The University is now funded in part based on the number of students who graduate.

“This is a real issue,” Cantrell said. “UTC did lose money this year because our graduation rate was not where we wanted it to be. We have to align our processes and procedures on this campus to provide a clear pathway to graduation for students. We have to instill a culture where students expect to graduate and every faculty and staff member embraces the responsibility of helping students earn a college degree.”

Bender agreed that the new funding model has changed the way administrators approach the issue of retention.

“It has always been important, but even more now, when the model [for funding] has been flipped on its head, you begin to pay attention to different things than you did before,” Bender said.

Bradley Bell, SGA president and a Knoxville senior,  said he wants to see the University do more for students to help them succeed.

With more guidance, he said, and also receive better advice in regards to classes.

Bell said while the student is ultimately responsible for their education, he would like to see more time spent on teaching advisors how to best help their students.

Advisement should be one of the biggest focuses to help improve student retention, he said.

“As a fifth year senior, I feel like there are two reasons I am still here… my adviser and me,” Bell said. “My advisor did not help me with what I needed and the course availability was also not there… I also did not want the academics to suffer because of my involvement in SGA and I didn’t want that to suffer because of a course overload either.”

The number one indicator of academic success is attending class, Cantrell said.

Now, faculty members are asked to report freshman who have missed a number of classes.

This is not to punish the student, Cantrell said. It is about helping students achieve their goal of a college degree.  students may find their niche in the University more easily and also receive better advice in regards to classes.

Bell said while the student is ultimately responsible for their education, he would like to see more time spent teaching advisors how to best help their students.

Advisement should be one of the biggest focuses to help improve student retention, he said.

“As a fifth year senior, I feel like there are two reasons I am still here, my advisor and me,” Bell said. “My advisor did not help me with what I needed and the course availability was also not there. I also did not want the academics to suffer because of my involvement in SGA and I didn’t want that to suffer because of a course overload either.”

The number one indicator of academic success is attending class, Cantrell said.

Now, faculty members are asked to report freshman who have missed a number of classes.

This is not to punish the student, Cantrell said. It is about helping students achieve their goal of a college degree.

Much attention has been focused on increasing the freshman retention rate, but students leave at every level, not just after freshman year, Cantrell said.

“There are a number of students not returning after their sophomore year, so we are looking at some interventions and strategies to close that gap,” he said.

Cantrell said one reason for low graduation rates could be a lack of sufficient financial aid available.

“There could definitely be a link between financial aid and graduation, especially in terms of the Tennessee Lottery Scholarship,” Cantrell said.

When students lose their lottery scholarships, many of them do not return to the school they were enrolled in, Cantrell said.

“We know that some families and students struggle to pay even UTC’s low tuition. Students who are forced to work while attending classes may be challenged to graduate,” he said.

Bender said the University is in the process of creating focus groups of students to begin meeting at the end of February and discuss what they would like to see changed to help them and their peers.

She said the groups will be asked to discuss either academic aspects or community engagement aspects to determine what works and what needs to be done differently.

“We will be asking what kinds of barriers they have experienced and what they would like to see more of here,” Bender said. “We need to know why many of these students are not getting involved and how we can get them involved… We want to know how to get students plugged in on campus so that they are more likely to return to the University.”

Students who would like to participate in the focus groups and voice their opinions can contact Bender by e-mail at fran-bender@utc.edu.

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