Once in, staying in tough

Once in, staying in tough

December 1st, 2009 by Joan Garrett McClane in News



* 86.8 percent of students wanted more internship opportunities

* 28.7 percent of students are involved in a student organization

* 10 percent of students are involved in a faith-based organization

* 50 percent of students knew someone who had dropped out

* 33 percent of students had thought about dropping out

* 75 percent said it was not likely they would drop out before graduation

Source: 2009 UTC Student Retention and Diversity Study

Like many of her friends, UTC sophomore Mia Chaput always knew she would go to college, but not a day goes by when she doesn't think about giving up on her four-year degree.

It's not that classes are too hard or that she can't afford tuition. The motivation just isn't there, she said. Cosmetology school is always at the back of her mind, she said.

"You graduate high school, you go to college and you get a job. That's the standard. That's beat into your head," said Ms. Chaput, whose tuition mostly is paid by the Tennessee HOPE scholarship. "College is hyped up, but at the end of the day it just feels like a waste of time. If I had it my way I would probably stay at home."

She's not alone.

A new study of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student attitudes shows that some middle-income students - even those with college-educated parents and sizable scholarships - have thought about or are thinking about dropping out of college.

More than 50 percent of UTC students have known someone who has dropped out of college, and more than one-third have thought about dropping out themselves, the UTC Student Retention and Diversity Study shows.

Students say poor study habits, inadequate time management and a lack of motivation are the real reasons behind many decisions to leave college.

"The majority of students did not indicate that they took advantage of a number of offices and services offered on the campus that could enhance their academic situation," the 55-page report states. "Students feel most students who have left the university have done so more as a result of personal situations than because of any failure on the part of the university."

The UTC study, which puts a spotlight on students' self-reported bad behavior, comes at a time when the school is facing mounting political pressure to improve its graduation rate of 42 percent, the worst graduation rate among University of Tennessee system schools, including the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and UT-Martin.

David Wright, associate executive director of policy, planning and research at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said that, even though students admit to making poor choices, colleges should be more accountable for their graduation rates.

"I still think the focus on more productive outcomes is an appropriate one," he said.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission is preparing to unveil a new funding model this January that would tie state appropriations more closely to graduation rates and make schools more accountable for student outcomes.

State legislators and Gov. Phil Bredesen have said increasing the number of college graduates is vital if the state is going to increase business opportunities and draw new industries to the region.

"Graduation rates are an economic driver," said state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. "If we can't get our kids out with a college degree, we'll have trouble recruiting new business and our current business will look elsewhere for expansion. The point is not to blame anyone. The point is to focus our attention where it is needed."

UTC Chancellor Roger Brown said UTC officials are trying to find better ways to advise students. School officials may begin providing incentives to academic departments that improve their advising and student retention rates, he said.

The campus can do a lot to reach students who are disengaged or on the brink of failing out of school, Dr. Brown said, but he hopes state leaders realize they are limited, to some degree, by what students choose for themselves.

"If we are going to measure institutional performance it needs to be fair," he said.

National experts say state leaders should be careful when devising a new funding formula for higher education, and they need to recognize that students are playing a role in lackluster graduation rates.

"There is no way to ever associate complete blame to either party," said Jillian Kinzie, associate director for the Center for Post Secondary Research at Indiana University. "Student behavior, in terms of what they are doing in college, still indicates there is a lot of need (for) improvement."

The type of students that attend smaller, regional campuses such as UTC have different academic profiles than those who would attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville or Vanderbilt University. On average, they have lower grades and lower standardized test scores, said UTC Provost Phil Oldham.

Schools with a mission of accessibility tend to see fewer students finish, he said.

The availability of the HOPE scholarship and increases in federal financial aid have helped make college attendance inevitable for many high schoolers. Also, more students have grown up in families that value the attainment of a college degree, he said.

The biggest setbacks for students on the road to graduation are their own poor decisions, he said.

"They come here as a freshman, and it's the Wild West," Dr. Oldham said. "They have all these choices, and they aren't prepared."

Students have always and will always struggle with the transition into college life and first-time freedom, he said, but parents and high schools can do a better job of teaching students study skills, responsible time management and independence.

UTC junior Hannah Thomas agrees.

"College is easy if you can manage your time, manage your money and pay attention," she said. "But a lot of us are out for our first time on our own, and we haven't learned responsibility. A lot of the problem is how kids are raised."

In the meantime, UTC officials said they will continue efforts to help students help themselves. Last year, UTC began the Freshman Academic Success Tracking program to track the class attention of first-year students. Since the program began freshman retention jumped 7 percent, records show.