BY THE NUMBERS
• 29 -- Georgia's rank among all states for adults 25 and older who have earned at least an associate's degree.
• 34 percent -- Number of Georgia adults 25 and older who have earned at least an associate's degree.
• 31 percent -- Percentage of Georgia 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in some type of postsecondary education in 2009.
• 23 percent -- Percentage of Georgia 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in some type of postsecondary education in 1991.
• 30 percent -- Percentage of black Georgia adults ages 25 to 34 who had attained at least an associate degree in 2005.
• 14 percent -- Percentage of Hispanic Georgia adults ages 25 to 34 who had attained at least an associate degree in 2005.
• 43 percent -- Percentage of white Georgia adults ages 25 to 34 who had attained at least an associate degree in 2005.
Source: "Perpetuating Disparity: Performance and Policy in Georgia Higher Education," University of Pennsylvania, Institute for Research on Higher Education and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
• From 1999 to 2009, median family income in Georgia fell by 7 percent, but tuition rose by 30 percent at public two-year colleges and by 49 percent at public four-year colleges and universities.
ABOUT THE REPORT
• The University of Pennsylvania, Institute for Research on Higher Education and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education selected five states: Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Washington based on performance, higher education structures and demographics.
• Researchers spent three to five days in each state conducting interviews with institutional and state leaders.
From early on, Marlen Rodriguez knew she wanted to go to college, but it wasn't until she was in middle school and joined a summer program at Dalton State College that she actually felt it could become a reality.
The program for sixth-graders to high schoolers taught her what to expect on her high school graduation and standardized tests. It basically prepared her for college, said Rodriguez, one of about 400 students who graduated from Dalton State this week.
During Friday's commencement ceremony at the school, the 22-year-old social work major talked to fellow students, faculty and loved ones about coming to the United States from Mexico when she was 4, about neither of her parents finishing middle school, and how, in the U.S., anyone who wants an education can get one.
"My parents have always been hard workers, and they said that with an education you can do whatever you want, become whatever you want," she said in a phone interview before graduation.
But a recent report paints a different picture about Georgia's higher education.
"At a time when postsecondary education is more important than ever, Georgia's higher education policies and priorities are putting up barriers to make it harder for black, Hispanic and poor Georgians to get a college education," concluded a report from the University of Pennsylvania, Institute for Research on Higher Education and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
"We are not looking at any individual policy but collectively at Georgia's overall performance, and it all perpetuates disparity by race and income," said Joni Finney, co-author of the report and higher education professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's hard to see how that gap can be closed by the current set of policies."
Georgia ranks 29th among all states in the share of adults 25 and older who have earned at least an associate's degree, according to the report.
The report based its conclusions in part on the higher percentage of Latinos and blacks enrolled at for-profit institutions and technical colleges. It also noted the lack of policy initiatives that connect K-12 schools and college and that most state aid in Georgia is merit-based rather than need-based.
Disparities in high school graduation rates and college completion also were noted in the report. In 2007, the high school graduation rate for whites was 65 percent compared to 48 percent for blacks and 43 percent for Hispanics, the report shows.
The state's college-age population, ages 18 to 24, is projected to increase by 40 percent by 2030, and a large portion of the growth will be among Hispanics and blacks, creating pressure on Georgia's K-12 and higher education systems, according to the report.
But the Dalton, Ga., area and Dalton State already have experienced a dramatic increase in the Hispanic and black student population. Hispanics make about 30 percent of the population in Whitfield County and account for 18 percent of students at Dalton State.
During the last decade, the number of Hispanic students has jumped 327 percent at Dalton State, from 208 to 888, according to the college's data. And black students have increased from 85 to 238 between fall 2002 and fall 2011, a 180 percent hike.
The white student population, although still the majority, has only gone up 1.3 percent, from 3,763 to 3,811, in the same timeframe.
Some Dalton State officials disagree with some of the report's conclusion.
"High risk is something that crosses ethnicity or color backgrounds; our students are very similar in their academic preparation whether they are white, black or Latino," said Jodi Johnson, vice president for enrollment and student services at the school. "When we introduce efforts to help at-risk students, we are reaching out to our entire student population."
About 50 percent of the school's graduates are first-generation college students, and freshman retention rates among Hispanics are higher than among any other group -- 73 percent compared to 59 percent for all students.
Debbie Freeman, principal at Dalton High School, said the school is about 70 percent Latino and that 75 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
"In our graduation class last year, we graduated 91.5 percent of our Hispanics, 88.9 percent of our blacks and 96.1 percent of our whites," she said. "The secret is looking at each kind on an individual basis."
Georgia Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said it's not news that the nation and Georgia need to do a better job of educating their populations.
"We know we need to do better, but that shouldn't be a discussion about race and ethnicity; it should be a discussion about the Georgia we want to be in the future," he said.
Finney, co-author of the report, said she would like to live in a world where ethnicity and income level don't play a role, "but that's not the Georgia that exists right now."
"The real question the state has to ask itself is, 'Is Georgia ready to accept the fact that demographics are changing and its future lies in educating the black, Latino and low-income residents of the state?' If you look at just policies, they are not ready to do that," she added.
For Rodriguez, college success falls heavily on the student.
"It depends on the student's effort more than anything. If you had goals set that you did want to go to college, it's easier to be focused," said Rodriguez, who graduated in four years with a 3.8 grade-point average.
And the state already has taken steps to improve some of the issues highlighted in the report, said Houston Davis, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia, which educates 52 percent of the state's post-secondary students.
"While the report accurately draws attention to challenges in educational participation and attainment, the conclusions of the research team regarding next steps are ignoring the fact that Georgia has taken action in the last year to commit significant time and resources to helping more of our young adults complete their college degree," he said.
"Our Complete College Georgia initiative places a premium on better serving traditionally underserved students including part-time, adult, first-generation, minority, low-income and students with disabilities," he said.
Finney said the report is based on state data and there might be pockets, like Dalton, that are successful and they should be highlighted and replicated. She acknowledged that Georgia has made it easier for students to transfer from the technical college system to the university system, which is a step forward.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...