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Ready or not? Georgia pushes to get more kids into college

Determined to raise enrollment, Savannah State University President Cheryl Dozier began visiting high schools in metro Atlanta, telling administrators, “Let me talk to the kids who didn’t get into the colleges they wanted to attend. I don’t mind taking the leftovers of other universities.”

Once persuaded to enroll at Savannah State, students experience what Dozier calls “high touch.” She said if students are sleeping late and missing their first class, they can expect a knock on their door from a student affairs staff member telling them, “I heard you missed your 8 a.m. class for the last three days. Get up, get dressed and go to class.”

Today, college presidents must worry about not only how many students enroll, but how many graduate. Once judged on how many kids walked in the door, colleges now face scrutiny from cost-conscious state legislatures on how many walk out with a marketable degree.

That concern is magnified in Georgia, where too few adults boast of the advanced education necessary for the job market. Now, 42 percent of Georgians hold a postsecondary degree; by 2020, 60 percent of jobs will require degrees, certificates or credentials beyond a high school diploma. At a forum Wednesday sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, several public college presidents joined University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby in explaining how they are responding to that shortfall.

You can watch the entire forum here.

Huckaby said he became the head of public colleges at a precarious time: “Higher ed was really being questioned from so many points of view. We were too expensive. We weren’t relevant. Too much debt was being piled on students. We weren’t producing the kind of workforce Georgia needs.”

Now, Huckaby said, “The word of the day is ‘change.’ We have got to get more students admitted to our institutions, we have to do a better job of educating them, of advising them and helping them choose a path that is realistic for them, not only from an interest standpoint, but an aptitude standpoint.”

It’s a collective effort, said Huckaby, citing the state’s High Demand Career Initiative that considers which jobs are going unfilled for lack of qualified applicants. One of the first results was the new Georgia Film Academy, which grew out of the burgeoning movie industry’s need to import skilled workers from New York, he said.

“We are about to propose cyber security training, a joint collaborative center that will probably be at Georgia Tech,” he said. “There are thousands of jobs going unfilled in that industry.”

College professors contend the zeal to increase college attendance and completion has led to more unqualified students in their classes and more pressure to pass them.

Dozier acknowledged some Savannah State freshmen “lack the readiness for the rigor of college. With appropriate learning support, they are able to compete … not finishing in four years, but in five or six years.”

Sixty percent of Savannah State’s students are working their way through college, some at two jobs, Dozier said. “Like everyone else between the ages of 18 and 21, they would like to be on a campus where they could devote 100 percent of their time to academics, but they are unable to do that.”

Huckaby said more need-based aid is vital if Georgia hopes to spur college attendance. This fall, he said, 7,000 students fell off the rolls at registration because of money problems.

“So many students are not going to college or not remaining in school because they just don’t have the money,” he said. “It is heartbreaking to talk to students, and they are unable to finish for a lack of a few hundred dollars. These typically are first-generation students, a large proportion of them minorities, coming from economically challenged backgrounds.”

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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.