published Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Once in, staying in tough


* 86.8 percent of students wanted more internship opportunities

* 28.7 percent of students are involved in a student organization

* 10 percent of students are involved in a faith-based organization

* 50 percent of students knew someone who had dropped out

* 33 percent of students had thought about dropping out

* 75 percent said it was not likely they would drop out before graduation

Source: 2009 UTC Student Retention and Diversity Study

Like many of her friends, UTC sophomore Mia Chaput always knew she would go to college, but not a day goes by when she doesn’t think about giving up on her four-year degree.

It’s not that classes are too hard or that she can’t afford tuition. The motivation just isn’t there, she said. Cosmetology school is always at the back of her mind, she said.

“You graduate high school, you go to college and you get a job. That’s the standard. That’s beat into your head,” said Ms. Chaput, whose tuition mostly is paid by the Tennessee HOPE scholarship. “College is hyped up, but at the end of the day it just feels like a waste of time. If I had it my way I would probably stay at home.”

She’s not alone.

A new study of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student attitudes shows that some middle-income students — even those with college-educated parents and sizable scholarships — have thought about or are thinking about dropping out of college.

More than 50 percent of UTC students have known someone who has dropped out of college, and more than one-third have thought about dropping out themselves, the UTC Student Retention and Diversity Study shows.

Students say poor study habits, inadequate time management and a lack of motivation are the real reasons behind many decisions to leave college.

“The majority of students did not indicate that they took advantage of a number of offices and services offered on the campus that could enhance their academic situation,” the 55-page report states. “Students feel most students who have left the university have done so more as a result of personal situations than because of any failure on the part of the university.”

The UTC study, which puts a spotlight on students’ self-reported bad behavior, comes at a time when the school is facing mounting political pressure to improve its graduation rate of 42 percent, the worst graduation rate among University of Tennessee system schools, including the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and UT-Martin.

David Wright, associate executive director of policy, planning and research at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said that, even though students admit to making poor choices, colleges should be more accountable for their graduation rates.

“I still think the focus on more productive outcomes is an appropriate one,” he said.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission is preparing to unveil a new funding model this January that would tie state appropriations more closely to graduation rates and make schools more accountable for student outcomes.

State legislators and Gov. Phil Bredesen have said increasing the number of college graduates is vital if the state is going to increase business opportunities and draw new industries to the region.

“Graduation rates are an economic driver,” said state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. “If we can’t get our kids out with a college degree, we’ll have trouble recruiting new business and our current business will look elsewhere for expansion. The point is not to blame anyone. The point is to focus our attention where it is needed.”

UTC Chancellor Roger Brown said UTC officials are trying to find better ways to advise students. School officials may begin providing incentives to academic departments that improve their advising and student retention rates, he said.

The campus can do a lot to reach students who are disengaged or on the brink of failing out of school, Dr. Brown said, but he hopes state leaders realize they are limited, to some degree, by what students choose for themselves.

“If we are going to measure institutional performance it needs to be fair,” he said.

National experts say state leaders should be careful when devising a new funding formula for higher education, and they need to recognize that students are playing a role in lackluster graduation rates.

“There is no way to ever associate complete blame to either party,” said Jillian Kinzie, associate director for the Center for Post Secondary Research at Indiana University. “Student behavior, in terms of what they are doing in college, still indicates there is a lot of need (for) improvement.”

The type of students that attend smaller, regional campuses such as UTC have different academic profiles than those who would attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville or Vanderbilt University. On average, they have lower grades and lower standardized test scores, said UTC Provost Phil Oldham.

Schools with a mission of accessibility tend to see fewer students finish, he said.

The availability of the HOPE scholarship and increases in federal financial aid have helped make college attendance inevitable for many high schoolers. Also, more students have grown up in families that value the attainment of a college degree, he said.

The biggest setbacks for students on the road to graduation are their own poor decisions, he said.

“They come here as a freshman, and it’s the Wild West,” Dr. Oldham said. “They have all these choices, and they aren’t prepared.”

Students have always and will always struggle with the transition into college life and first-time freedom, he said, but parents and high schools can do a better job of teaching students study skills, responsible time management and independence.

UTC junior Hannah Thomas agrees.

“College is easy if you can manage your time, manage your money and pay attention,” she said. “But a lot of us are out for our first time on our own, and we haven’t learned responsibility. A lot of the problem is how kids are raised.”

In the meantime, UTC officials said they will continue efforts to help students help themselves. Last year, UTC began the Freshman Academic Success Tracking program to track the class attention of first-year students. Since the program began freshman retention jumped 7 percent, records show.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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ladyvolz said...

To UTC Provost Phil Oldham, first of all to compare UTK and Vanderbilt academically is a joke. Second, I take offense with your statement that students attending UTC are less smart and have poorer grades than UTK. If I am a great HS student with a 3.5 to 4.2 grade average and I read this statement from you, it would alter my consideration of attending UTC, making me think I might not get the right education.

Does this mean that my daughter is not getting the education that she might have at UTK? I did not want her at attend UTK because I felt that it was like throwing students into a black hole, at UTK the student is only a number. I wanted her to attend a smaller university where Professors know their students' names, classes are small and students can ask questions during class and the Professor is actually in the class and can answer the question.

I feel insulted by your comments. Perception now is that UTC is a second tier school academically. Maybe you should transfer to UTK where you will feel more at home.

December 1, 2009 at 9:59 a.m.

All the expensive studies and all the experts can't figure out that even in these times, humans are still human? They are unique individuals with unique gifts who desire to be fulfilled. The best parents and the best teachers can be rich or poor, mediocre or genius, yet they know how to nurture a child and encourage them to become all that they can be. In the article, there seems to be more blame placed on the child, rather than the System and its 'experts'.

Our modern school systems categorize, stigmatize, homogenize and squelch every last bit of creativity out of their student body. Not every human is meant to become a computer techie, a physician, an attorney or a professor. Not every human wants to work for a large corporation or a government bureaucracy. Yet, that's what students have been prepared for the last few decades. Where are all the trades and arts schools? No wonder many of our best jobs have been outsourced or just placed on the "out of fashion" shelf.

It used to be after 12, 13 years of school, an 18 year old would take some time off, try out several jobs and/or travel, get their feet wet in the vast world around them. Today, American kids have been mostly protected and coddled from having any real world experience. No wonder they're bored and exhibit feelings of apathy and futility. Teenage suicide rates here in the US are extremely high. These factors should also be taken into consideration along with the above points in the article.

No human was made in a cookie-cutter machine and shouldn't have imposed upon him or her a sterile, one-size-fits-all template: College or else. Young people have bright, inquisitive minds and spirits. They have huge energy. There's a world out there full of needs, volunteer opportunities, people to help in some way and countries to explore. Or to just rest, take a break and get to know themselves a little better, who they are and what they have a passion for. One doesn't need a lot of money, just people around that care and will be supportive. We all can be part of that scenario, I believe those kids are worth it.

December 1, 2009 at 10:09 a.m.
harrystatel said...

"On average, they have lower grades and lower standardized test scores, said UTC Provost Phil Oldham."

Would the corollary be that UTC Provost Phil Oldham is a substandard academic leader since he's the man in charge at UTC? Are the teachers at UTC as substandard as the students?

How much does this genius make at UTC? How soon can he be fired since no one recognizes his superiority but him?

Mr. Oldham, I'm sure you need a taller ivory tower to contain your ego. Please, go find it.

December 1, 2009 at 10:44 a.m.
dogmrb said...

While his comment is not "politic", it's an empirical question. Are lower grades and lower ACT scores the norm or UTC?

Real life is not as entertaining or exciting as what students have seen in the media so it's hard work staying focused. Maybe a national service for all youth is what is needed and then they will be ready to chose college, a trade or starting their own business or all three.

Provost Oldham might be substandard or he might enjoy Chattanooga, the UT system or the challenge of undermotivated students.

December 1, 2009 at 11:08 a.m.
Ebyss9387 said...

First of all, good article.

I've been a student for almost 16 years and counting. I am 22, so do the math. Never have I dropped out or taken time off, and at this point it would be a waste of the 16 years of my life spent learning and growing as a member of the community.

I went to public school, and have had a decent upbringing.

That being said, I have probably wanted to drop out about 5 times. It is a natural feeling, especially when given the opportunity to make "real" money, or if this so called real life experience gets in the way. At this point, however, it is not about the money I may make, or about the degree(s) I may hold. It is about accountability. I have accountability for my parents, who raised me to succeed, to my college, for imparting vast amounts of knowledge and know-how, and to myself, because I owe it to me to do what I feel is right.

This feeling, in my opinion, cannot be taught in school or read about on the Internet. The only solution is to find the drive within oneself to achieve a goal, no matter how BORING it may be.

I feel that the administration has an obligation to students to make higher-ed interesting, and more importantly, relevant to our near futures as possible. They have no obligation, however, to babysit us and hold our hands through the process. I feel like the larger percentage of the blame does belong to someone. My peers, the students. And possibly their parents to some degree as well. I could probably rant about this all day, but I have to study for an exam I don't want to take (but realize I have to).

December 1, 2009 at 1:11 p.m.
Humphrey said...

The average ACT score of a UTC student is 22.7.

The average for the state of Tennessee is 20.6.

The average for the USA is 21.1.

So UTC students are above the state and national averages.

Provost Oldham didn't say that UTC students were sub-par; he said that they had lower ACT scores than UTK or Vanderbilt. That is just a statistical fact, not an opinion. The point he is making is that it shouldn't be surprising that UTC has lower retention and lower graduate rates than vanderbilt or UTK because the mission of the school is different and the student population is a little different. It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that if the ACT scores are a little lower then the graduation rate will be a little lower.

He isn't giving any opinions, just the statistics. He isn't talking down to anyone or showing ego. Y'all are reading way too much in to what the man said.

At Vanderbilt the ACT mid 50% range is 30-34; at UTK the mid 50% range is 24-29. For comparison, at Sewanee it is 25/33. At UTC it is 20-25. The average ACT score at UTC, 22.7, is lower than at those schools. That's a fact.

But it is higher than any other public school in Tennessee besides UTK and Tenn. Tech.

At UT-Martin the mid 50% range is 20/25, with a mean of 22.4. At Memphis the mid 50% range is 19-24 and average ACT score is 21.7 the middle 50% is 19/25, at MTSU the middle 50% is 19/24. At Austin Peay the middle 50% is 20/24 with an average ACT score of 22. At ETSU the middle 50% is 20/25 with an average ACT of 22.31. At Tenn. Tech. the mid 50% is 20/26, average is 23.1.

UTC is doing quite well in terms of attracting good quality students, and giving the students a good quality education. Chattanooga should be proud to have such a great public university here. Dr. Oldham wasn't knocking the quality of students, he was saying that it is unfair to compare retention and graduate rates between UTC and UTK when the ACT scores of students coming in are different. The universities have different missions.

December 1, 2009 at 4:57 p.m.
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