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Georgia education officials tackle college attainment gap
Removing financial, other obstacles to degrees can get students across the finish line
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This fall, thousands of young Georgians had to give up on a dream.

These students, more than 7,000 of them, were “purged” from the state’s universities and could not finish their education.

“Sometimes they are not able to finish because of a lack of a few hundred dollars,” said Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System of Georgia. “I’m talking about thousands in most cases, but sometimes it’s less than $1,000.”

But the obstacles to achieving a secondary degree are not purely financial.

By 2020, more than 60 percent of Georgia jobs will require an advanced education beyond a high school diploma. Today, only 42 percent of young people have a college degree. State and national efforts are dedicated to closing that gap and removing the obstacles to a higher education.

Kevin Greiner, chairman of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said employers today look for workers “with a little something extra.”

As technology advances, the expectation for employees to be technologically savvy advances, too.

“This means what was OK or sufficient 10 years ago, really isn’t today,” Greiner said.

The partnership held a Critical Issues Forum on Wednesday, gathering state university and technical college leaders to discuss the “attainment gap” for college students.

The obstacles to completing an advanced degree, experts agree, are numerous.

“It’s too expensive. It’s not relevant. It’s costing too much, and debt was being piled up,” Huckaby said, listing examples of the obstacles when he became chancellor in 2011. “We weren’t really producing the kind of workforce that the state of Georgia needs.”

Today, the biggest obstacle to obtaining a degree is clear.

“As we make our efforts to increase the number of young people coming out of high schools to go to college, to go to technical college or to have some post-secondary experience, one of the greatest obstacles, quite frankly, is a financial one,” he said.

The state’s merit-based scholarship program is No. 1 in the country, thanks to the Hope Scholarship. Its needs-based program, however, is lacking.

“When it comes to needs-based financial aid, we’re in a tie with three other states for the bottom,” Huckaby said. “We really don’t have a systematic, funded, needs-based program.”

Huckaby called the 7,000 students “purged” from his university system this semester “heartbreaking.”

Huckaby said the state has an economic imperative to help students graduate from college because they become self-sufficient, capable contributors to the economy.

Greiner agreed. “It is very important that we are able to close that gap so that we can get our population to the point where there are enough people that have the education to perform the jobs of the 21st century,” he said.

There are a number of things local colleges and universities can do to help young people achieve a secondary degree, according to Huckaby.

“We’ve got to do things differently,” he said. “We’ve got to get more students admitted to our institutions. We’ve got to do a better job of educating them in the areas in which they’ve really had an opportunity to be successful.”

Proper college advising is one improvement institutions can make today.

Dr. Gail Thaxton, president of North Georgia Technical College, said she believes every student should be advised to make choices with graduation in mind.

“One of the things we had to realize was we could no longer think of students when they come in the door as a new or returning student,” she said. “We had to think of that student as a graduate. Every student, every day — a graduate.”

She said courses shouldn’t be “scary” anymore, and threats of failure shouldn’t be made. Students should have all the resources they need to succeed academically, right on campus.

Increasing need-based scholarship opportunities is also essential in Georgia.

“We’ve got to make it easier for these young people to go to school and to cut down on the necessity for them to borrow money,” Huckaby said. “It’s the right thing for them and, quite frankly, it’s the right thing for our society.”

Huckaby said partnerships might be the greatest solution to supporting college students.

“We can not, as a university system, not even as individual institutions, work (alone),” he said. “We have an obligation and really an opportunity to work with our colleagues in the technical college system and in the independent college system.”

Partnerships with businesses are essential as well. If the state is concerned about increasing job opportunities, there is greater hope for students after graduation.

Some state universities, including University of North Georgia, are already doing just that. Following the boom of Georgia’s television and film industry, UNG established a four-year degree in film and digital media. The industry results in approximately 78,000 jobs and $3.8 billion in wages.

Lanier Technical College also partners with potential employers, and students participate in a number of apprenticeship programs through the college. Lanier Tech currently has the first HVAC apprenticeship program in the state, and it boasts a 98.6 percent job placement rate.

Huckaby said, in the end, the goal of state colleges and universities should be more than to get students “across the finish line.”

“We have an obligation to prepare these students for life,” he said. “They’re going to be in our communities. They’re going to be in our organizations. They’re going to raise standards. They’re going to vote, or not vote. This is a critical aspect of having a well-rounded, informed, educated citizenry.”