GA, AL colleges offer options to ensure students graduate in four years

GA, AL colleges offer options to ensure students graduate in four years

COLUMBUS, GA/PHENIX CITY, AL (WTVM) - College students are taking longer to graduate from four-year universities. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center  found only 53% of students who enrolled into a four-year degree program in 2009, have graduated six years later in 2015. That's only slightly down from the 55% who enrolled one year earlier.

Universities in eastern Alabama and Western Georgia say they have programs to combat those numbers.

"There used to be a strict 'by-credit' rate but we're trying to encourage students to graduate on time," says Constance Relihan Ph.D., associate provost for undergraduate students at Auburn University.

Relihan described the "Finish in Four" initiative the school began a few years ago that encourages students to take more than 12 hours a semester and complete their undergraduate studies in four years.

AU's tuition structure is as such: Full-time, undergraduate students are only charged up until 12 credit hours; after that, students essentially have six more hours they can take at no additional charge, and that is what they are encouraged to do. Tuition is the same whether you take 12 credit hours, or 18. Relihan said there are certain fees that are attached to some individual courses, but the program is attainable for the majority of students.

AU is making sure the program is clearly advertised across the campus, by spreading awareness through posters, banners and on buses. Students must also meet with advisors once a semester and meet with career planners and counselors. Additionally, there is an online degree audit tool called "Degree Works" which students can use to ensure the courses they're taking all apply to their degree program.

The more cost-effective "Finish in Four" program begins as early as orientation during freshman year, with a big push to graduate on time.

"What we found is students tend to continue on the way they've begun," Relihan said. She says if students begin their college career taking just 12 hours, they often continue on that route, then fill up the rest of their weekly schedule with clubs, organizations, jobs, etc.

"Then they end up overloading themselves in their junior and senior year, when the courses are harder and it's really counter-productive," Relihan said.

In addition to the main "Finish in Four" program, there are smaller, side programs. At end of a students' first year, their coursework and workload are analyzed and if they haven't completed at least 25% of their classes, the Dean sends letter home letting students and families know they're not on track to graduate in four years. They also give advice like suggesting summer courses, taking on more credits following semester and letting students know about other advisement and tutoring opportunities.

Columbus State University and Troy University have similar programs to ensure students graduate on time.

Hal Fulmer, Ph.D., Associate Provost and Dean of Undergraduate and First Year Studies and

Director of the John W. Schmidt Center for Student Success at Troy University took an in-depth look at the national study.

"The University has revised its General Studies program, effective this current Fall 2015, to create more flexibility and opportunities for students in their first two years of study.  These revisions are assisting new Troy University students as well as transfer students in ways that help them make sustained progress toward their specific majors."

That is on top of their online eTROY feature and Student Support Services program.

The eTroy program is a Center for Student Success which provides a number of support areas, critical to a student making progress toward degree completion. The Student Support Services program provides additional tutoring, mentoring, scholarships and support for the students who are most at-risk and who qualify for the program.

Fulmer said the national graduation rate study provides some insight but must be put into perspective. He said the dynamics have changed from two decades ago when most students were of traditional age of 18 and typically took 15-18 hours of academic credit per semester. Classes were most often available in a traditional and physical classroom in the past and students worked only part time. He said under those conditions, students often graduated in 4 or 5 years but "Today, a much wider variety of individuals make up the college/university student population.  Often, even traditionally-aged students (18-24) work 30 hours or more a week and enroll in 12 hours of academic credit," Fulmer said. "Under these conditions, it becomes much more likely that students will take 5 or 6 years or longer to complete their degrees."

The national study also found graduation rates were lower for students who began their programs after age 20, suggesting either an improved job market or increased problems with affordability, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Fulmer said they're assessing all areas of that issue. "The issues of retention and degree completion are complex and serious ones.  At Troy University, we are very aware of, and very sensitive to, the need for students to make good progress toward their degree completion, within the contexts of their individual lives.

When it comes to Auburn University, they're stressing that when students are looking for jobs or graduate or professional schools, hiring managers want to see students can take on a heavy workload and still perform well.

"Showing you can take 15 to 16 hours and make good grades, looks better than making good grades while taking only 12 hours," said Relihan. And she said it's not just about having students spend additional years and school and fork over more money to the system. "We want them to succeed and we want them to be proud and successful and feel good about the time that they spend at Auburn."

Auburn University Retention and Graduation Rates:

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