In an uncommon strategy to improve graduation and retention rates, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia summoned the presidents of its 35 colleges and universities , one by one, to account for problems at their institutions and present three-year plans outlining how they hope to boost the measures of student success.
The systemwide challenge was issued earlier this year by Willis J. Potts, Jr., the straight-talking chairman of the Board of Regents and retired paper industry executive.
“We have a funding system here in Georgia that financially rewards institutions based on [enrollment] growth,” Potts said. “Having been in manufacturing, I know the factor that needs to be studied is what kind of finished product is coming out the other end. Less than 60 percent of the students in our system graduate within a six-year period. I know of no other process that would achieve 60 percent [success] and go out and brag about it.”
Reflecting on this, Potts said, he and his colleagues were driven to find out what was holding the system’s institutions back. So they went straight to the top — at each institution.
“We challenged every one of our 35 institutions to bring data to show where they’ve been, where they are and how they can get to where they want to go,” Potts said. “Some of the campus leaders were shocked when we told them what they had brought was unacceptable and asked them to come back again with different plans. Word spread rapidly among the other [campus leaders] and the quality of the plans and presentations improved. The tone of an organization is set by its leadership, so it was important for us to get in the weeds a little bit. It’s been a tedious exercise, but we’ve collected a lot of data and improvement plans to which our presidents will be held accountable.”
The regents’ interest in getting involved in the nuts and bolts of retention improvement is making system officials take notice — if only because most boards leave such academic matters to their presidents.
Susan Herbst, the system’s executive vice chancellor, who sat in on the meetings with all of the presidents, acknowledged that the board’s “direct interest” in these issues was “unusual,” but argued that it was proving beneficial.
“The board is trying to get in the black box of retention and graduation to try to understand what works and what doesn’t and why,” Herbst said. “Improving these rates is a national problem, and we’ve all written a lot about it, but this is a pretty bold attempt to get directly at it. Throughout this process I’m pleased to see that the presidents really take this personally. They really own this problem and realize they’re accountable for it.”
The sessions with the system's 35 presidents sometimes resembled therapy sessions, Herbst added.
“These are hard times for both the regents and the presidents, so a lot of frustration was expressed,” she said. “But, in the spirit of Dr. Phil, you’ve just got to get it out on the table if you want to work together. It was very good on an emotional level.”
Herbst noted that some campus leaders came alone, while others brought scores of aides with them. Some who attended the meetings early in the process did not bring data-driven plans for improving student success measurements and were asked to come back with better answers, Herbst said. News of the regents' tough stance on the review process quickly spread to all the other presidents.
Getting beyond the blame game, Potts said, was essential in talking to campus leaders about what they could change at their institutions to improve student retention. In other words, given that institutions simply will not get the kind of funding they would like, the regents wanted them to consider more cost-effective initiatives to boost retention and graduation.
“A liberal application of money can help anything,” Potts said. “But most of the things we’re talking about don’t involve money, they just involve attention. That’s what we’re learning. This work requires a caring spirit and that’s what we’re seeing throughout the system.”
Responses to Potts's and the regents’ challenge varied from institution to institution, but there were commonalities, especially along sector lines.
Georgia State University, with 30,000 students, is one of the system’s four large research institutions. Not surprisingly, its student success marks are better than those of many of the system’s state and community colleges, which receive significantly less funding. Georgia State’s latest freshman-to-sophomore retention rate is 83.3 percent, and its most-recent six-year graduation rate is 49.6 percent. This leaves considerable room to improve, especially in order to rise to the numbers put up by the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology, both of which have six-year graduation rates in the mid-to-upper 70s and are significantly more selective in admissions than is Georgia State.
Mark P. Becker, Georgia State's president, said he welcomed the regents’ inquiry into his institution’s retention and graduation rates, noting that he has made improving them a priority since taking the presidency last year. He said the regents’ emphasis on student success mirrors a change of philosophy in higher education in recent years.
“For those of us in the baby boom generation, we always thought about college like, ‘Look to the left of you. Look to the right of you. One of the three of you won’t be here for graduation,' ” Becker said. “It was survival of the fittest. Let’s throw everyone in the deep end and see who gets out alive. We were looking at things in a different way at Georgia State even before the regents came around to ask us what we were doing, so we’re glad our priorities are aligned. We know our graduation and retention rates aren’t going to skyrocket overnight, but we’re headed in the right direction.”
Since 2000, Georgia State's freshman-to-sophomore retention rate has increased by nearly 10 percentage points and its six-year graduation rate has shot up by more than 20 percentage points. In the plan  it presented to the regents, Georgia State noted that it hopes to keep up the forward progress during the next three years, boosting its freshman-to-sophomore retention rate to 84.9 percent and its six-year graduation rate to 51.2 percent. The university set these targets with some input from the board — as did all of the other state institutions with their own goals — and they were made with the knowledge that lasting change in such measurements is incremental and takes time.
To achieve that change, among other ideas, the university plans to encourage more than half of its freshmen to enter one of its many learning communities , in which entering students take four or five courses together during their first two semesters; boost the percentage of freshmen living on campus by at least 10 percent; and increase the number of freshmen who participate in peer tutoring by the same amount. All of these efforts’ abilities to boost retention are supported by data and are prime examples of the specific types of efforts Potts was looking for from university presidents in their meetings.
Daniel S. Papp, president of Kennesaw State University — with about 22,000 students, one of the system’s mid-sized “state universities”— was one of the campus leaders who were told to go back to the drawing board after an initial meeting with the regents.
“We were a bit surprised about that,” Papp said. “They wanted additional information on why folks left our institutions [before graduation]. They also wanted us to drill down further into the data we had specifically, for example, to assess the impact of some of the retention programs we had in place. They told us, 'You’ve got to look at something more than just adding money to the equation, such as doing better advising.' It wasn’t the least bit punitive. Rather it was like, 'Have you considered this?' Or, 'Have you looked at this?' ”
Kennesaw State’s most recent freshman-to-sophomore retention rate is 76 percent, and its latest six-year graduation rate is 38 percent. Among other issues revealed in a self-study, the university found most students who dropped out said they did not receive enough academic advising and that student demand for courses exceeded availability. The three-year goals  Kennesaw State presented to the regents are fairly ambitious. It wants to boost its graduation rate by 10 percentage points and hopes to do so by, among other projects, encouraging all of its students to take between 30 and 33 credit hours per academic year, increasing the number of hybrid and online course offerings, and helping its students plan their academic courseload at least two years in advance.
The situation at Georgia Perimeter College, which with more than 25,000 students is the largest two-year college in the system, is indicative of the uphill battle many community colleges in the state face when attempting to raise their retention and graduation rates. Its most recent freshman-to-sophomore retention rate is 63.2 percent, and its latest three-year graduation rate is around 9 percent. In its presentation  to the regents, the college said that it hopes to boost its retention rate to 66 percent and its graduation rate to 9.4 percent.
Anthony S. Tricoli, Georgia Perimeter's president, however, offered a word of caution about these measures of success, which he deems incomplete.
“Our retention rates are based upon first time/full time students, at GPC this is only 12% of our total population; and in this population segment we perform about the national average (depending upon the criteria used),” Tricoli wrote in an e-mail. “The majority of our students enter GPC with the intention of transferring. So, we are not worried about the measurement of our success upon this criteria. Graduation rates for GPC is a bit more challenging however; as many of our students transfer from GPC prior to graduating. So the best evaluative criteria for us is retention and transfer.”
According to the latest figures available, 35.8 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen at Georgia Perimeter successfully transfer within three or four semesters. Also, a third of all of the system's transfer students come from the institution. Still, the institution did not set transfer goals in its report to the regents.
Concerns with measurements aside, the college outlined a number of ways it would work to improve student success. For example, it will encourage more of its incoming students to take a “first-year experience course” teaching them study methods; expand the number of faculty who serve as student academic advisers; and establish a college-wide “retention council” to monitor project results.
Presidents within the Georgia system praise the regents’ focus on retention and graduation initiatives, even if it did mean putting the presidents on the spot about their campuses. Whether the attention from the regents will pay off remains to be seen — at least so far. Those involved with the meetings noted that, as a result of the dialogue, the state system could consider moving toward some level of outcomes-based funding and calculating its own in-system student success measures.
Potts, for one, says boards in other states should take note of the work being done in Georgia.
“It’s an issue of leadership,” said Potts, noting that he was very pleased with the meetings. “It’s an issue of designating what’s important to your organization and then demonstrating to that organization that you’re serious about what you profess. I think any trustee or regent worth their salt should be asking these types of questions.”