Knock Down Barriers Between Georgia Students and College Graduation

Originally published by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute

By Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee with her father, grandparents and brother in 1992.

I attended my dad’s Ph.D. graduation as a kid. Long before cell phones gained popularity, my mom sent me on a mission to pass a message to my dad about where we would meet after the ceremony. I walked up to the ropes separating the graduates from their guests and got down on my hands and knees to sneak underneath, hoping to find my dad in the sea of black caps and gowns. A security guard caught me and turned me away.

I was a kid and I wasn’t supposed to be with the graduates. But too many college students who are in the right place find their path to a diploma blocked.

In Georgia, 59 percent of full-time, bachelor’s degree track students in the university system will graduate within six years. Some students are much more likely to graduate than others.

Georgia students who are the first in their families to attend college graduate at a 46 percent rate, compared to 62 percent for their peers with a parent who holds a bachelor’s degree.

Graduation rates increase with a family’s income. Forty-four percent of students from families that earn less than $35,000 per year graduate within six years. Fifty-five percent of students from families earning from $35,000 to $75,000 a year graduate within six years, and 69 percent of students from families earning more than $75,000 per year graduate in the same period.

Graduation rates also differ by race and ethnicity. White students make up the largest number of full-time freshmen in the university system and graduate at a 65 percent rate. Black students graduate at a 43 percent rate. Georgia’s universities enroll a smaller but growing number of Asian students, who graduate at a 73 percent rate, and Hispanic students, who graduate at a 56 percent rate.

Almost all students face challenges in adjusting to college life and getting through a higher education system with standards, expectations and ways of doing things dramatically different from high school. Some of the gaps in graduation rates are explained by differing levels of K-12 academic opportunities. Some students are more experienced or skilled at ways to navigate college systems and resources. Establishing supportive relationships with peers, mentors, faculty and staff improve the odds for success.

But graduation gaps can shrink with smart and common sense strategies. Georgia State University closed the graduation rate gap between black and white students with a mix of student support efforts and financial assistance. Implementation of these strategies has raised the graduation rates for all students at the college. Georgia State’s graduation rate for white students increased by 10 percentage points over the past eight years, while graduation rates for black students increased by 13 percentage points.

The state wants to grow the number of college graduates in Georgia. The state should pursue this goal for a variety of reasons. Public investments in higher education are returned to society in multiple ways, including more tax revenue from higher earnings for college graduates, healthier people and higher levels of civic engagement. That’s in addition to developing Georgia’s workforce that will increasingly need some postsecondary education for 21st century jobs.

The state is promoting strategies to improve chances for student success, such as a new emphasis on academic advising and reforming remedial courses to help students transition to higher education coursework. However, Georgia has hesitated to tackle one big completion barrier in a meaningful way: financial need.

Students from lower-income families are less likely to graduate than peers at the same college who are from higher-income families. Grants and loans are available, but they often fall short of financial need. Many students are understandably hesitant to take on loans. When students try to make up for a money shortage through increased work hours, that can take a toll on classwork. Some students take fewer courses, lengthening the time it takes to graduate. Just the stress from money woes, which might include housing and food insecurity, can act as a roadblock to degree completion.

Academic support, active advising and financial aid are strategies that complement each other. Offering a combination of those three increases the chance for success. Georgia has focused attention on two of these areas. It can do more to address students’ financial needs.

During my college orientation, leaders assured the new and nervous students that, despite what our insecurities might tell us, we were not admitted by mistake. Now that we were official students, the college was committed to our success. By removing financial need as a barrier to success, Georgia can send the same strong message to college students across the state – Georgia believes in their potential, prioritizes their interests and is fully committed to their success.

Jennifer Lee is GBPI’s higher education policy analyst, focusing on state policies that provide all Georgians greater opportunity to complete a higher education credential. Lee graduated from Wellesley College and holds a master’s in public affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.