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State graduation rates low for 2-year degrees
Reasons, rates vary; transfers, tuition among causes cited
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In Georgia, about two-thirds of new full-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees will graduate on time, but for associate degrees, fewer than a quarter will graduate under the same criteria, according to Complete College America.

In University System of Georgia schools, that rate is even lower. Only 9.5 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen seeking associate degrees will graduate within three years, according to 2012 data, the most recent available. At the University of North Georgia, that rate was 9.2 percent.

Local educators say the reasons for this lower two-year graduation rate vary, and the rates of graduation themselves differ depending upon the type of program and school and a variety of other factors.

For example, rates are much lower in the University System of Georgia, which includes mostly four-year schools, than they are for the Technical College System of Georgia, which is mostly two-year institutions.

Last year, 62 percent of students who left the technical college system earned a degree, certificate or diploma, 71 percent at Lanier Technical College. The system’s graduation rate specifically for associate degrees is 55 percent; it skyrockets to 84 percent when looking only at certificate programs.

Their overall rate is comparable to the bachelor’s degree graduation rate in the university system, which was 60 percent for students who began school in 2006, and 63 percent at UNG. However, each system uses different criteria to determine the graduation rate; the university system bases its rate upon the number of students who enter the system in a given year, while the technical college system looks at the number of students who leave.

Other institutions using different metrics can report wildly different outcomes. Complete College Georgia gives the technical college system an associate degree graduation rate of only 18 percent, according to Mike Light, the communications director for the technical college system.

Kate Maine, communications director for UNG, said the school doesn’t normally compare associate degree graduation rates with rates for bachelor’s degrees. She finds it more helpful to look at what students are doing than where they fall within a complicated data metric.

“These are typically very different student populations,” she wrote in an email. ”Particularly with associate degree programs, the complicating factor is transfer to another institution.”

Throughout the university system, students often transfer from associate to bachelor’s degree programs without completing their associate degrees first, said Sheila Caldwell, director of Complete College Georgia for UNG.

“When you have a college that has a high transfer rate, it will be less likely that they have a high graduation rate,” she said.

Before Gainesville State College merged with North Georgia College and State University to form UNG, Gainesville had the highest transfer rate in the university system, Caldwell said.

UNG’s Gainesville campus is the school’s main campus for associate degree students, offering 58 associate degree majors. In comparison, their Oconee campus offers the second largest number of associate degree programs at 27.

Caldwell said many students come to the Gainesville campus with a transfer to a bachelor’s degree program, often within UNG or at the University of Georgia, already in mind.

 ‘I wanted to dip my feet’

Patty Bautista, a business administration student at the Gainesville campus, is one of those. She plans to get her associate degree and then move on to a bachelor’s degree program in the same major

Bautista is a full-time student with part-time jobs at a Gainesville movie theater and the school’s office of student records.

“My initial plan was to go ahead and get my bachelor’s,” she said, “but I wanted to go ahead and show that I’ve already done something. ... I wanted to dip my feet in the water.”

She went straight into college after graduating from Chestatee High School. She said the career pathways used by Georgia schools systems were helpful in preparing for college, particularly where it came to choosing a major.

“If I had a different interest, if I wanted to do a different major, it would be easier to do,” Bautista said. “It’s a lot of learning experience as you go through learning the ropes.”

Bautista chose the education and business career pathways, meaning she took elective courses in high school meant to prepare her for careers or college majors in those subjects. In Georgia, the pathways count as part of each school’s College and Career Readiness Performance Index, a department of education rating meant to determine whether schools are meeting minimum standards.

But the pathways are a recent addition to Georgia schools — they’ve only been required since the 2013-2014 school year — so many current college students never used them. Bautista said many of her classmates are nontraditional students, a term broadly defined to includes older and part-time students, those with dependents, the financially independent and students who didn’t graduate high school.

“They have a lot of other responsibilities that wouldn’t allow them to complete a four-year degree just yet,” Bautista said.

Caldwell said the number of nontraditional students does not alone account for the lower graduation rate, but it does mean that two-year schools have to adapt.

“We do have a high population of nontraditional students, but they do have different interests, different needs,” she said. Many nontraditional students, she said, are low-income, are first generation college students or are adults looking to start a new career.

“All of these things you’re more likely to see at two-year school than a university,” she said. “We have a lot of students who have more responsibility. They are working full-time, they have a family they are trying to take care of while going to school.”

 Lower tuition a draw

Four-year students, Caldwell said, are more likely to go to school full-time and live on campus than students at two-year schools. Yet she said the number of traditional students choosing to begin in a two-year program is on the rise.

This is particularly true at UNG since its consolidation because the tuition for associate degree programs is lower than it is for bachelor’s degree programs, even if the courses are the same, she said.

“They figured out that they’re on the same campus. ... They can declare the same associate degree program and then transfer into the bachelor’s program for that lower tuition rate,” she said. “They’re still receiving the same high quality education.”

On UNG’s Gainesville, Oconee and Cumming campuses, in-state associate degree program tuition is about $100 per credit hour, while bachelor’s degree program tuition is about $170.

Aside from status, Caldwell said couldn’t think of a reason a student would pay more for a bachelor’s degree program when an associate degree track for the same program is available. However, that availability could lead to more students transferring out of associate degree programs before they graduate. An associate degree may never have been their goal.

In the technical college system, associate degree programs are not as common as other credentials, like professional certificates.

At Lanier Tech, only 163 of 1,088 students were in associate degree programs. President Ray Perren said the nature of technical college programs increases the odds of graduation.

“Students, when they come to a technical college, really have a singular purpose in mind,” Perren said. “Really all of our programs are built around an occupational objective. When they enter Lanier Tech they declare some sort of occupational major. ... They don’t come here to find themselves.”

In other words, technical college is not a place where students typically try different courses to see what suits them best.

“Usually students who get into a program do persist and graduate,” he said.

Perren said this is particularly true of the allied health programs, which comprise about 40 percent of enrollment and have competitive admission.

For those programs, he said, “you’ve already demonstrated your academic ability before you even get in.”

At four-year institutions, too, graduation rates are typically higher where admission is more selective. At public institutions where fewer than 25 percent of applicants were admitted, the graduation rate was 95 percent for 2012, according to the national center for education statistics. In comparison, the rate for public institutions was just 61 percent. For two-year institutions, the rate was 20 percent.

Traditional students at four-year institutions may have an advantage in the ability to dedicate themselves to seeking a degree. Students who have fewer outside responsibilities and are able to make school their top priority have the odds of graduation in their favor.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that nontraditional or associate degree students can’t meet their goals, too — just that their paths don’t fit neatly into the metrics.