UNC system revamps to increase graduation rates

Trevor Metcalfe – Editor-in-Chief – temetcal@unca.edu

College educators called for a new focus on improving graduation rates around the country in the wake of a rapidly changing student body, according to new national and state education proposals.

“We must invest in ways that make college more affordable, reduce student debt, increase completion rates and expand access,” said Libby May, spokesperson for the American Dream 2.0 report.

The report, developed by a coalition of college and foundation presidents, civil rights leaders, state policymakers, college access advocates and business leaders, encourages colleges to develop strategies to help reduce college debt and completion rates. Strategies suggested by the document include simpler financial aid systems, innovations catered to students with other responsibilities and a shared burden between states, schools and students toward increasing graduation rates.

May said the report uses both school research and public opinion polling on issues such as college affordability and financial aid.

“The research goes deep into the perceptions of parents, students, policymakers and institutional leaders to surface both challenges and opportunities as they relate to improving the aid system,” May said.

The suggestions by the letter and others released this year mirror solutions formulated in a recent five-year strategic plan for the UNC school system. The strategic plan aims to strengthen graduation rates across the state and cater to a more age-diverse student population.

UNC Asheville graduated 38 percent of its seniors in 2008, an increase of 17 percent from 2006. The rate increase brings UNCA very close to the national average of 38 percent, but much lower than UNC Chapel Hill’s 80 percent.

Rainbow Sipe, a 40-year-old UNCA senior and art student, said the community college transfer process made the graduation requirements frustrating and difficult to complete.

“It has been pretty frustrating,” Sipe said. “The whole transfer system and the disconnect between the community colleges and what they say is the same and what the four-year UNCA system says is the same don’t sync up at all, even though they are supposed to.”

Sipe also said the difficult transfer credit appeal process dissuaded her from trying to appeal for class credit or graduation requirements. At UNCA, community college transfers can use a designated list of course equivalencies to apply for transfer credits.

Many older people are returning to either grad school or an undergraduate institution, according to Sipe. At UNCA, 21 percent of the student body and 29 percent of seniors are older than 25.

“Most of my friends are going back for a second degree that is more specific career foundation, as opposed to personal interest,” Sipe said.

Phillip Presnell, an information technology specialist with Madison County government and UNCA alumnus, said an unhelpful adviser and low course availability delayed his graduation by three semesters.

“My starting adviser, before I declared my major, wasn’t really able to tell me what classes I needed to take,” Presnell said. “So, I was behind on my prerequisites by the time I was in the major.”

Presnell said some of the courses required by the major were only offered every other semester.

“I ended up having to take a lot of substitutions,” Presnell said.

The UNC Board of Governors approved the strategic plan at their Feb. 8 meeting. The plan next heads to the state legislature before passing into law. UNC system president Tom Ross also said he plans to meet with many school faculties to help explain the plan and answer faculty questions and concerns.

“The status quo is not working when some institutions have completion rates in the single digits and skyrocketing student loan default rates,” May said. “Students must lead the charge for real change.”

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