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2010 October 4 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Focus on Grad Rates as Tenn. Enrollment Swells

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Enrollment is up almost 5 percent at Tennessee colleges and universities, but the state Board of Regents wants higher graduation rates to go with the increased number of students.

Universities have almost 95,000 students signed up compared with this time last year and nearly 100,000 students signed up for classes at community colleges across the state.

The Tennessean reports that schools don’t have the money to hire new faculty or build buildings, but are managing by bringing in adjunct professors, promoting online classes and adding extra classes to the schedules until the school day.

“We’ve been asked well, we haven’t been asked, we’ve been told to do more with less,” said Warren Nichols, president of Volunteer State Community College, where enrollment jumped 20 percent last year and 5 percent this fall.

In January, the state passed sweeping higher education reforms that require public colleges and universities to work together to improve Tennessee’s dismal graduation rate. Universities that fail to graduate students within six years, or community colleges that fail to get students an associate’s degree within three, will suffer state funding cuts.

Fewer than a quarter of Tennesseans have bachelor’s degrees, putting the state ninth from the bottom in the nation for educational attainment, according to a 2008 Census survey.

Volunteer State has been instructed to improve its graduation rate by 3.9 percent every year, a tall order when it enrolls so many who may sign up for a class or two with no intention of earning a degree. Those students count as dropouts under the new formula.

“The goal (of graduating more students) is tremendous. We need to get more students educated in this state,” Nichols said. “They wanted us to do better by our students. They want the people who start (college) to finish,” Nichols said. “But what’s happened is, we’re getting squeezed. We’re overcrowded. I don’t have enough money, faculty or staff.”

To compensate, schools such as Volunteer State are working with students to ensure they have the skills and support to keep them in school and on course to graduate.

Incoming freshmen are steered into orientation programs that offer everything from study skills to nutrition counseling to help them avoid weight gain. The campus is crowded with learning labs and study skill centers where struggling students can get intensive help to keep them from failing a class and potentially dropping out of school in frustration.

“They would spend hours working with me,” said sophomore Keith Hall-Pride, who used the writing tutoring sessions in the campus language center during his freshman year.

Hall-Pride is on track to graduate and is making plans to transfer to Middle Tennessee State University next fall to earn a degree in business management.

“They teach you here. The classes are small, you get to ask questions, they get you to understand,” Hall-Pride said.

Last year was the first time in decades that there were more students enrolled in community colleges than at universities.

Board of Regents Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Paula Myrick Short said more people went back to school for retraining or to pick up new skills as the economy tanked.

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