JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – By the year 2025, East Tennessee State University wants 60% of its students to graduate. That’s a significant goal considering right now only 42% of first-time, full-time students who start at ETSU graduate from the university within six years. The graduation rate is much lower for black students at less than 30%.
For the most part, those numbers, which are both below national averages, have remained consistent over the last several years.
“Are the numbers what we want them to be? No,” ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland said. “The goal we’re setting for the university by 2025 is 60%. I think that is attainable.”
Freshman Niya Thomas doesn’t want to be a statistic. The 19-year-old black student from Chattanooga is doing everything ETSU’s research suggests will lead to success. She is a member of a club, she lives on campus and is a full-time student.
“It’s a matter of breaking the stereotype for me,” she said. “If there’s anyone that can do it, it’s me.”
Dr. Noland says in addition to the steps the university’s taken to try and help black students, ETSU has taken steps to try and improve graduation rates for the entire student body. He says a big part of that effort is trying to convince students to go full-time. Records show full-time students graduate from ETSU 62% of the time. Dr. Noland says roughly 25% of ETSU’s students are part-time.
“The challenge is that a lot of students are going part-time. They’re working, they’re balancing family interests and all of those things from a research perspective indicate that that student’s going to have an uphill climb,” Dr. Noland said.
In addition to pushing students to take 15 credit hours, Dr. Noland says the university’s hired more advisors, added people to the counseling office to support students, hired faculty members, enhanced the number of tenured faculty and improved technology to help students map out their path to graduation.
He says the university needs to move away from its tradition as a commuter college and get more students to live on-campus, be engaged in clubs and athletics and enroll full-time.
“If we can create that environment…we’re going to move the numbers,” he said. “If we can’t change the culture, the numbers aren’t going to move.”
He thinks the university’s already moving in that direction. After all, he says ETSU just welcomed its best prepared freshman class ever. He says as long as students do their part, the graduation rates should begin improving in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 graduation years.
“We can put in place interventions, we can hire additional counselors, we can hire additional faculty, but at a certain point, the individual has to take responsibility for their path to the degree,” Dr. Noland said. “Ultimately, the student has to make the choice to do the things that we’ve outlined for them that will allow them to be successful.”
Megan Fisher is a sophomore from Abingdon who lives on-campus and is a full-time student. She says she’s committed to seeing her education through.
“I thought I would come here to get the full experience, so I’m confident I’m going to graduate,” Fisher said.
Complete Tennessee Executive Director Dr. Kenyatta Lovett says graduation rates across the state need to increase.
“It’s really critical that graduation rates get well beyond the 50% range, hopefully in the 60-70% range on average across all of our universities for us to get where we need to be,” he said. “Without our institutions producing, providing the right degrees, the number of degrees for business and industry, our economy is in trouble of coming to a screeching halt because there is just not enough workers.”
Funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Complete Tennessee’s goals are to increase access and graduation rates in Tennessee. Dr. Lovett says it’s also critical that universities close the gap for black students so everyone has an equal chance at success. He says the entire community needs to do more to support those students and make them feel like they’re welcome on campus.
“It’s everyone’s job to get there, but it takes a lot more effort than we’re doing right now with students,” Dr. Lovett said.
Dr. Noland says ETSU’s mission is one of the reasons its overall numbers have historically remained low. He says the mission is to offer an education to as many people in Central Appalachia as possible. The university accepts 86% of all students who apply, according to federal data.
According to Dr. Noland, ETSU and other state institutions started putting more emphasis on improving graduation rates several years ago after Tennessee changed its funding formula in 2010. That change incentivized institutions to focus more on growing graduation and key target goals, instead of just enrollment, he said. He says the data is also much better today than it used to be.
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