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2012 July 23 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS : US Chamber of Commerce Gives Colleges Mixed Grades

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Two-year colleges in South Dakota received high marks for student access and affordability in a recent study, but four-year schools here are lagging the national average, the report says.

The report, titled “Leaders and Laggards” and issued by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, the educational arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia on how well their public colleges and institutions prepare students for postgraduate careers. More states got F’s than A’s. South Dakota got C’s.

The institute called the results of its study “sobering.”

“We’re too used to resting on our laurels,” said Margaret Spellings, president of the institute and secretary of education during the George W. Bush administration. “There’s very little of looking below the reputational issues to, ‘Well, how are we doing?’”

Students and businesses would benefit if states found more efficient ways to measure both the quality and quantity of degrees over the long term and rewarded institutions accordingly, Spellings said.

Each state received separate grades for four-year institutions and two-year institutions in four grading categories. In two categories, policy environment and innovation, each state was graded based on performance by state government officials. The report uses data from different sources from 2008-2012.

Among the findings:

  • At the four-year level, Washington state, California and Florida earned the highest grades. The worst performers were Alaska, Idaho, Louisiana and Nevada. South Dakota’s four-year institutions received D’s in student access and success as well as efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

  • North Dakota and South Dakota outperformed other states at the two-year level. South Dakota earned an A in student access and success and B’s in efficiency, cost effectiveness and meeting labor market demand.

  • Florida was the only state to receive an A grade at both the four-year and two-year levels.

  • In all but three states, statewide completion rates at four-year public colleges hovered around 50 percent.

  • In 17 states, fewer than half of first-time students at four-year institutions got their bachelor’s degree within six years.

  • Completion rates for two-year colleges are even worse. Just one state, South Dakota, had a statewide graduation rate higher than 40 percent, and 33 states had two-year completion rates at or below 25 percent.

  • Just two states, Minnesota and Texas, received A’s for “transparency and accountability” among four-year institutions. Thirteen states received F’s. No two-year institution earned an A for that category.

The report shows a stark contrast between the performances of two-year and four-year institutions in South Dakota. In the category of student success and access, “South Dakota’s four-year institutions receive a poor grade . ranking in the bottom third of states,” while two-year institutions “fare much better, placing first in the nation in completion rate and retention rate.”

Southeast Technical Institute, a two-year school in Sioux Falls, has a retention rate of 64 percent, in part because of innovative approaches to student engagement, said Jeff Holcomb, STI president.

“There are a couple things that we are doing different. One of the things we’ve implemented here is a student success center. We try to focus on every student and find out what their issues are and help them complete,” he said. “Each student has a success adviser that works with them, and we also recognize that barriers to completion are not always academic in nature.”

Holcomb said often the students who quit school don’t do so because they’re not college material, but because of medical issues or other obligations such as taking care of children or working full-time.

“We try to accommodate them and help them make it through regardless of what their situation is,” he said. “We feel that individualized attention is a great piece. The faculty and staff are very engaged in helping each student.”

Jack Warner, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, said he was surprised to see low marks for the institutions he oversees and questioned the methodology the institute used when conducting the study.

“We’re being compared with states that have comprehensive community colleges. In many ways, we fulfill the role of some associate degree-granting institutions,” he said. “If you’re in another state, the comprehensive community college would offer the first two years of that kind of instruction. Some of those nuances get lost in a national study like this, and I would have thought we’d rank quite a bit higher.”

Still, Warner said the report did reveal some useful information.

“It’s not easy to decipher how they derive some of their comparisons, but it obviously identifies some challenges for us, particularly with student access and success and what they call efficiency and cost-effectiveness.”

The report says states should focus less on attracting new students and work harder at making sure students who already are enrolled get their degrees.

“Somebody has to make universities care about outcomes, and that’s the state,” Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said during a panel discussion on the report’s findings.

Spellings recommended making it easier for students to transfer credits from community colleges to four-year institutions and expanding access to online classes, associate degrees and other forms of alternative education.

“Students spend a lot more time than they need to and a lot more money on institutions,” Spellings said.

But Warner said the Board of Regents has a very accommodating transfer policy, which he thought would have earned higher than D in the report.

“We have common course numbering across our university system, and we also have a single transcript so anyone attending one of our institutions already has a transcript developed. So transfer is very seamless within our system,” he said. “We have over 250 articulation agreements with the technical schools in the state.”

Allowing students to earn an associate degree on the way to their bachelor’s degree is one option, said TJ Rivard, an Indiana University assistant vice president. He said many students who drop out of four-year programs because of medical problems often have enough credit hours to earn an associate degree but don’t know it.

Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University and a professor of public service, said colleges and universities could become more efficient by expanding use of online teaching, adding more classes on Fridays and offering summer classes. That would increase the number of three-year degrees, which is common in places such as Britain, he said.

Students would enter the workforce with less debt and universities could educate more people, he said. Trachtenberg called four-year degrees “an accident of history.”

Mari Freitag, a political science student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, said the report reflects the frustration many students feel about the cost of college and problems trying to transfer credits.

“It’ll help (the) focused efforts of student governments,” said Freitag, the student regent on the University of Alaska Board of Regents. “It’s difficult because you’re trying to fix something, but you don’t even know how it can be fixed.”

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