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Task force sets plan to increase college completion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After more than a year of combing through education statistics, a team of students, professors, business leaders and college presidents across the state have a game plan to increase West Virginia's chronically low college completion rate.

In a 20-page report released Thursday called "Educating West Virginia is Everyone's Business," a task force organized by the Higher Education Policy Commission and West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education laid out a five-step roadmap to dramatically increasing West Virginia's college completion rate.

Among the recommendations are to make college graduation a state and campus priority, reduce the time it takes students to earn their degrees, improve remediation education courses, increase adult completion rates, and tie higher-education funding to college completion rates.

"For West Virginia to compete economically and globally, it is critically important that we increase college completion and that every student in West Virginia be placed in a pathway to meet the future needs of the state's business and industry," Joanne Tomblin, first lady and co-chairwoman of the college completion task force, said in a news release.

West Virginia has among the lowest college attendance and completion rates in the country.

Out of every 100 students enrolled in the ninth grade in West Virginia, only 17 will earn a two- or four-year college degree within 10 years. In the best-performing states in the U.S., 30 students receive a college degree within that timeframe.

Of the students who attend college in the state, 60 percent do not complete their degrees.

"Increasing our college completion rates is one of West Virginia's most important public policy goals," West Virginia University President Jim Clements, co-chairman of the task force, said in the release. "The work of this task force is a significant step toward achieving that goal, and I hope our report generates a sense of urgency and inspires our collective action."

West Virginia can reverse those dismal numbers by moving from an enrollment-centered culture to one that emphasizes college completion, and easing some of the big roadblocks obstructing graduation.

That starts with making a statewide and campuswide culture centered on graduation.

"This culture exists when everyone on campus, including senior leadership, faculty and staff, articulate high expectations for students and provide them with the resources they need to meet them," said the report.

One of the major factors influencing college dropouts is the cumbersome transition between remediation courses and credit courses. Frustration with the process can lead to students abandoning plans to continue their degrees. About 69 percent of all students in two-year institutions and 20 percent of all students in four-year institutions need at least one catch-up education course when they enter college.

The report also recommended that West Virginia higher education move to more of an outcomes-based funding model where part of a school's financing is related to making sure students graduate.

The HEPC says West Virginia already ties incentives for graduation rates to school financing, but it recommended expanding that model so that state grants align with programs that improve college-completion rates. In the last two decades, 26 states have experimented with performance-funding models.

Ohio, for example, made small-scale changes to its school finance structure in the 1990s that reduced the median time it took students to receive a bachelor's degree from 4.7 years in 1999 to 4.3 years in 2003.

Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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