Staff Editorial: Finding ways to increase graduation rates

GW tells prospective students that they have the exclusive opportunity to graduate on the National Mall. But what the University isn’t as proud to share is that one in five students don’t make it there within six years.

The six-year graduation rate has remained stagnant at about 80 percent for the last five years. The provost’s office has vowed to make sure it rises, launching a data-driven study this year.

Although GW is above the 65 percent national average for non-profit private universities, there are good reasons for administrators to care about raising this number even more. The universities GW tries to compete with, like New York University and the University of Southern California, have much better success getting their students diplomas on time.

Not only does the number of students who graduate in six years or less weigh heavily into the U.S. News & World Report rankings system, the federal government could also soon begin using the data as a key factor in determining how much financial aid to dole out.

But graduation rates have a more human implication. The more time students spend in college, the more tuition they pay and the more debt they incur.

Administrators’ time is well-spent when they are working to ensure that students get their education in as timely a manner as possible. A yearlong study on the issue will show new strategies GW should implement, but there are clear places GW could start right away.

The first place the University should look to improve is mental health services.

Sixty-four percent of students who drop out of college cite mental health problems as the reason for doing so, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Only half of these students seek mental health resources like counseling.

GW doesn’t have to start from scratch in making these improvements.

The University already has the CARE Network, a tool that allows students, faculty and staff to identify community members struggling with academic, financial or mental health issues. That allows the University Counseling Center – or the appropriate department – to offer help.

But here’s the problem: Not nearly enough people know how to use this resource.

Only one in five professors across GW were familiar with the CARE Network, according to a survey conducted last year. This program could be a real asset, and one that helps the graduation rate – but only if a robust training and awareness initiative is put in place for faculty and students.

Other schools have seen their graduation rates jump after instituting smart, worthwhile programs.

Georgia State University, for example, has used low-cost strategies to boost their graduation rate by an astounding 22 percentage points over the last decade. It hasn’t driven up costs by hiring more administrators – a solution GW tends to fall back on.

Instead, Georgia State relied on its students, building a peer-led tutoring initiative to provide individual support to students.

GW has its own tutoring initiative, where students can receive 10 free hours of tutoring per year. But the subject matter on which they can offer assistance is limited mainly to hard sciences.

The University of Southern California – which has a 90 percent graduation rate – tracks students who do not register for classes and reaches out to offer help.

These proactive strategies make sense. But there’s a huge barrier to progress at the University: exorbitant tuition costs. Undergraduates walk away with an average of $33,398 in debt, according to the Project on Student Debt.

With a burden this large, it is understandable that many students drop out due to financial pressure. Low-income and first-generation students have an even larger hardship to bear, and GW should find solutions.

For instance, the University should offer cheaper online courses over the summer. Financial aid doesn’t kick in during that time, making these courses too costly for students but profit centers for the University.

Administrators will be succeed at improving GW’s graduation rate if they keep their eyes and ears open – and invest in the issue.

Many of these strategies are relatively inexpensive, but after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on research endeavors that boost GW’s brand and administrators’ reputations, GW can’t justify not investing in improving the graduation rate.

If GW concentrates its efforts in the right places, maybe the National Mall can be even more packed on Commencement day.

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