WSFA 12 Special Report: graduation rates among Alabama colleges - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

WSFA 12 Special Report: graduation rates among Alabama colleges

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

If Alabama's public colleges and universities were graded on the percentage of students graduating in four years, the vast majority would fail.

The latest numbers by the National Center for Educational Statistics shows the University of Alabama with the strongest four year rate at 41%, and the worst being Alabama State University, graduating only 6% of students in four years.

Troy University Assistant Provost, Dr. Hal Fulmer, says traditional students are on the brink of extinction.

"I think it's taking longer because there's a need, and that need is economic," Fulmer said.

Fulmer says at Troy's main campus, they're called "contemporary learners". They are students who defy the traditional trajectory, essentially setting universities up for failing grades on the Federal Scorecard: national numbers that only track first time, full time students, who are counted out if they transfer or take a semester off, which is exactly what's happening.

"They stop in and then they stop out, they might be back, but they might not be back next fall," Fulmer said.

Few universities know this better than Auburn University Montgomery.

AUM Associate Provost, Tyler Peterson, says during any given semester, 30% of its full time students work at least 20 hours a week.

"We look at students on a 6 year grad rate," Peterson said.

Perhaps the single largest blow to four year graduation rates came from the federal government, dropping the hourly semester requirement from 15 to 12 hours.

Fulmer agrees it's had an impact on universities.

"Relatively small changes over a period of time have relatively large results," Fulmer said.

Students must be full time to qualify for student aid, but many now attend for a semester and take the next off to work.

Every semester, more students are falling through the cracks.

Alabama State University initially denied our request to discuss its graduation rates.

In a subsequent meeting, President Gwendolyn Boyd spoke openly about issue, and a newly formed committee to examine the dismal numbers. Boyd says retention is key.

"If we are intrusive with them and stay with them at every point along the spectrum, they will graduate," Boyd said. "They won't get to their junior year and run out of money or get to their senior year and need three courses to graduate."

Boyd says the results of the study have not been completed, but promises the university is changing the way it does business involving its students, and seeing them through to graduation.

"Sometimes it's a matter of not having enough money for tuition, they don't tell anybody, and they just don't come back," Boyd said.

The academic patterns are a financial plague for many of the Alabama's colleges.

As state appropriations dwindle, post-secondary education must rely on tuition to remain viable. Without knowing who is coming back to campus, many must choose between increasing enrollment or tuition.

Auburn University Associate Provost, Constance Relihan, agrees universities must strike a fine balance between accepting the right students and understanding higher education is truly a business.

"Every university has to be concerned with the business enterprise, sources of revenue and we are all very mindful," Relihan said.

For larger universities like Auburn, the needs both academic and financial are different. It can be more academically selective in admissions, but all campuses must meet the brick and mortar demands of students who want the full college experience, which costs money.

Peterson says it's something AUM is closely monitoring.

"New residence halls, new wellness centers, these are things that are important to students," Peterson states. "In order to be competitive, these are places universities are spending their money."

As graduation rates lend to financial stability, Relihan reveals the university is delving into its student's academic affairs in an unprecedented way.

"We have implemented an early alert grade program that requires faculty members who teach core classes to submit grades to students a week before the midterm drop date so we can have a retention coordinator and an advisor follow up with students who are at academic difficulty at midterm so we can get them the help they need," Relihan said.

Auburn also restructured tuition, allowing students who take 12 hours or 15 hours to pay the same rate.

As for graduation rates, Relihan admits, "The conversation has always been there, I think it's intensified as state funding has decreased and talk of the federal scorecard has increased."

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