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Getting behind the reasons why students drop out of W.Va. State

It used to be at West Virginia State University, if the going got rough, you could jump online, withdraw from all your classes, pack your bag and take off.

Starting this semester, it's different. The final step to dropping out of school will require some face time with an administrator who will have a chance to ask, "What's wrong?"

Money? Classes? Illness in the family? Feeling unconnected?

Whatever the reason, new West Virginia State President Brian Hemphill wants a crack at helping students solve problems before they drop out of school.

He has plenty of room for improvement. State held on to only 58.4 percent of its first-time, full-time freshmen between 2009 and 2010, the third-lowest retention rate of any public four-year college in West Virginia. The rate is a little better if you count part-time students who return. It's also better if you factor in students who stay in school but transfer to another college. But however you slice it, State lags behind most other schools.

"We have entirely too many students who come to our campus, and then for whatever reason, decide to walk away from their college education," Hemphill said during a meeting with Gazette editors this week.

Keeping students in school -- and paying into State's revenue stream -- is critical to the future of the university. "It's critical to the future of those men and women, and it's critical to the state," he said.

Hemphill will probably discover a variety of things plaguing his students and interfering with their goals. State has a high proportion of non-traditional students -- people who already have house payments or rent due, children or aging relatives to look after. His students may be dealing with domestic violence, unsupportive family members, military deployments or other types of chaotic disruptions at home.

Or, he may already know all that, because he understands that students sometimes leave for good reasons, intending to come back in a semester or two.

But what people often find is that it can be difficult to get back to college once you leave, he said.

After students leave, if they have trouble making enough money and default on student loans, the chances of their returning to finish school drops to single digits, he said.

"A part of the message we're trying to send is that we expect you to graduate," he said. "If you are good enough for us to admit you, you're good enough to graduate."

And, for full-time students, Hemphill believes you should finish a four-year degree in four years.

He seems to be about the only one to think so. The state and feds don't even evaluate graduation rates based on four years anymore. They measure it by six years.

So, of the freshmen who entered State in 2006, only 17.9 percent of them finished a bachelor's degree at some public institution in West Virginia within six years, according to the Higher Education Policy Commission. And that number has been falling.

Overall, six-year college graduation rates in West Virginia are pretty pathetic -- 47.5 percent statewide, with the highest just 55.8 percent at WVU. There can be good reasons for students taking more than four years to finish. Students may need to work at the same time to support themselves or their families, for example. But not always.

And the longer students take to finish their degrees, the less likely they are to finish, Hemphill said.

West Virginia State University is one of the Kanawha Valley's real gems. Plenty of people will be glad to see Hemphill lean into the effort to turn these numbers around.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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