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South Needs to Focus on College Enrollment and Completion

A new report released today by the Southern Regional Education Board shows that the South needs to improve college-enrollment and -completion rates if it going to keep up with workforce demands.

Measuring Success by Degrees gives a snapshot of educational attainment in 16 Southern states that is not too far off the mark for the rest of the country. College-graduation rates for first-time, full-time freshmen entering in 2002 and finishing in 2008 at four-year universities in the South was 53 percent, compared with 55 percent nationwide. At two-year institutions, the completion rate was 17 percent in the SREB states and 20 percent overall in the country. Of those who enter college, nearly one in five at four-year institutions in the South don't make it to their sophomore year, the report shows.

More high school graduates in SREB states are enrolling—up from 57 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2008, according to the report. (Nationally, it's 63 percent.) Yet high school graduation rates continue to be a challenge. The chance of college enrollment for 9th graders is just 43.7 percent in the South, compared with 44.4 percent in the country overall.

Complicating the landscape in the South is the rising population of Hispanic and low-income students, who haven't been as successful graduating from high school and college.

In a panel discussion on the report today, Joan Lord, vice president for education policy at SREB, called for improved support services, especially for first-generation students, and better transfer policies to enable students to move from one institution to another without having to repeat classes.

Much of the work needs to be done in the K-12 pipeline, better preparing students for higher education. "We need curriculum in high school that engages students and gets them ready for rigorous courses in colleges," says Lord. Difficulties can sometimes be traced back as early as 6th grade. Performance in math and absenteeism can signal problems, and schools need to pay attention early to help students succeed, she says.

The new report comes on the heels of a SREB report No Time to Waste: Policy Recommendations for Improving College Completion, released in October. The recommendations urge the 16 SREB states to lead the nation in improving college completion, and they set a target of having 60 percent of adults ages 25 to 64 in each state to have a college degree or high-quality career certificate by the year 2025.

To achieve this, SREB suggests states have a detailed plan for improving graduates, with specific goals. Institutions and university-system leaders should also be more accountable for improvement, and better measures need to be developed to study the quality of higher education.

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