CHARLESTON, West Virginia — Leaders from many of the 16 Southern Regional Education Board states spent two days here discussing with national experts how states and their colleges and universities can increase degree completion substantially in the coming years — a prelude to this summer when the SREB states will consider a set of important recommendations to help state policy-makers and educators improve college completion numbers and rates.
SREB President Dave Spence told the audience that the draft policy recommendations provided will be revised based on leaders’ and experts’ responses at the conference here, then will be considered by the full SREB Board in June. The recommendations cover topics such as college affordability, college readiness, changing campus cultures to focus on student success, improved college-transfer policies, better outreach to bring adults back to finish degrees, and more.
While continuing to expand students’ access to postsecondary education, "we must place an equal focus on graduating more of our students," said Brian Noland, the chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, opening the two-day conference at the Charleston Marriott Town Center. The event was co-sponsored by SREB, Noland’s agency and Governor Joe Manchin III, the current SREB chair.
West Virginia First Lady Gayle C. Manchin, who represented Governor Manchin at Monday’s opening session because of the recent mining disaster, called for states to develop more accurate measures to give the public "a better sense of how our two-year and four-year colleges are performing." She stressed the need to raise graduation rates in two- and four-year colleges and universities, and she called for more attention to students’ lack of preparation for college and career training.
"When I had students who had graduated from West Virginia high schools in honors English and they were in my [remedial] class, that was totally unacceptable," said Mrs. Manchin, a former college instructor. "It’s not right that many of our students have to take remedial courses. It’s not right that students run into difficulty when they want to transfer," she said. "We should be looking for ways to clear the path for all of our students, rather than getting in their way."
Governor Manchin joined the conference Monday night, calling for states to more effectively "find out why people got close and didn’t graduate" after starting to pursue college degrees. "This is a low-hanging fruit" that can begin to pay off for states quickly, he said. Manchin noted that he plans to continue to emphasize college completion when he departs as the SREB chair and becomes the National Governors Association chairman later this year.
Other highlights of the conference:
Dennis Jones of the nonprofit National Center for Higher Education Management Systems showed data that clearly indicate the U.S. has fallen behind other developed nations in the education levels of young adults. "We’re not only behind, but we’re losing ground," he said.
SREB Fact Book on Higher Education data indicate that changing demographics and low degree-completion rates threaten to halt the nation’s progress in raising overall educational attainment levels. Jones emphasized that states and the nation cannot resolve the problem by depending solely on graduating more traditional-aged students. States must also expand opportunities for adults, including those who have some college credit and those who are beginning a degree program.
Two university leaders discussed their institutions’ success in helping many students from low-income and less-educated backgrounds earn college degrees at higher-than-average rates for similar institutions: Ann Lotven, the provost of Delta State University in Mississippi, and Western Kentucky University Associate Dean Ellen Bonaguro discussed their work in detail. Both institutions are among the 15 profiled in the major new SREB report Promoting a Culture of Student Success: How Colleges and Universities Are Improving Degree Completion, officially released today.
Lumina Foundation President Jim Applegate, a former higher education chief executive in Kentucky, said state leaders and the public must be convinced "there’s a certain urgency here or the economy’s not going to recover."
Many states have not developed public agendas that link higher education to the needs of the state, said Richard Novak, the senior vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. He noted that West Virginia and Kentucky are among the states that have such agendas. He also called for college and university governing boards to hold institutions more accountable for increasing degree completion, and for college and university boards to work together on improvements in postsecondary education. He noted that tight economic times may require states and institutions to consolidate administrative functions and examine the use of resources more in depth than they have before — and to direct more resources toward helping students graduate.
Stan Jones, the president of Complete College America (a relatively new nonprofit organization supported by the Lumina, Bill & Melinda Gates and other major foundations) said it’s "inconceivable" — but true — that the nation and many states and institutions do not report graduation rates for specific groups of students, including those who receive Pell Grants, transfer students, part-time students, and others. He added that many states use "10-day counts" for enrollment and funding, but that more weight should be given to the numbers of students who successfully complete courses and degrees. He called for "a strong set of common measures" to give the public and policy-makers more details about student progress in postsecondary education.
Jones recalled how Governor Manchin explained to him why states need to improve degree completion and students’ success rates in college. "He said for every college dropout, we have already invested over $100,000 in that person [in education]," Jones recalled. "It’s not just that the person’s loss. We lost that investment."
Pat Callan, the president of the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, told participants that tying economic growth to higher numbers of college degrees and certificates should help convince policy-makers, business leaders and the public of the need for change. "What we are talking about here is the American standard of living" that may be at risk, Callan said.
State legislators, higher education chiefs and senior leaders from most of West Virginia’s public colleges and universities offered their views on the proposed SREB recommendations. Senator Tim Shaughnessy of Kentucky, Representative David Rainey of Arkansas, Senator Bob Plymale of West Virginia, Representative Jabar Shumate of Oklahoma, and many others shared their states’ progress and their views on the proposed SREB recommendations.
For more information about efforts to improve degree completion and for data on your state’s status, contact SREB Communications.
The Southern Regional Education Board, or SREB, based in Atlanta, was created in 1948 by Southern governors and legislatures to help leaders in education and government work cooperatively to advance education and improve the social and economic life of the region. SREB has 16 member states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. More information is available online at www.sreb.org.