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In W.Va., many struggle to complete college degree

Over half of students still lack degrees after six years of college


The Herald Dispatch of Huntington

HUNTINGTON, W.Va.  — Every college student has to jump through hoops to get accepted, but then another challenge arises: staying there.

In West Virginia, 24.7 percent of students at public four-year institutions complete their bachelor’s degree in four years and 45.6 percent manage to complete it in six years, ranking the state 44th out of 51 for college completion. This leaves over half of students still unaccounted for after six years of college, not counting part-time students and those who have previously attended college.

So what slows down students? Jessica Kennedy, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s senior director of communications, said finances are one issue – students sometimes have to drop out to work or support a family member.

However, that is just one factor, and in some cases the issue lies with the programs themselves.

“Another problem we have found in West Virginia is that a lot of students take classes part time,” said Corley Dennison, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Higher Education Policy Commission.

Statistics show that the longer it takes students to complete their degree, the less likely they are to get it at all.

To combat this problem, Complete College America’s “15-to-Finish” initiative was implemented by the state Higher Education Policy Commission to encourage students to complete a minimum of 15 credit hours per semester. At Marshall University, the number of students achieving this goal is increasing steadily, and in 2014, 53.8 percent of freshmen earned 30 hours by the end of their first year.

The Higher Education Policy Commission works in connection with Complete College America. The West Virginia team, which President Anthony L. Jenkins of West Virginia State University in Institute, West Virginia, was recently appointed to, aims to increase the number of students who successfully complete their college education. In particular, they are working to close achievement gaps by race, income, age or other fragile populations.

Another problem recently addressed was the fact that many students’ progress toward graduation was slowed by having to take remedial or developmental classes that did not count for their program of study. Kennedy said students stuck in these extra classes were getting discouraged.

West Virginia was one of the first five states to apply co-requisite education, in which students who require remedial education are given additional help while they take the college’s normal entry-level courses rather than remedial classes. Dennison said local institutions, community colleges in particular, went all-in. As a result, they have seen astronomical improvement: The 2013 pass rate for gateway math increased from 14 percent to 62 percent, while the English pass rate rose from 37 percent to 68 percent.

Having higher education benefits not only the individuals receiving it, but also the region as a whole.

“Strengthening West Virginia’s economy is dependent on ensuring that more West Virginia students have the opportunity to go to college and succeed,” said HEPC Chancellor Dr. Paul Hill in a press release.

The National Center for Education Statistics states that in 2015, 45 percent of American adults have some type of post-secondary degree, but Dennison said that for adults in West Virginia, that number is 28 percent. This creates a problem, as many jobs require additional education, narrowing residents’ options significantly. And this discrepancy could remain an issue.

“Most jobs that are going to be created – in fact, over half that are going to be created – will require some kind of credential,” Dennison said.

Yet the region is seeing improvement. The years between 2010 and 2016 saw a 23 percent increase in the number of students receiving some type of certificate. The state HEPC and Complete College America are continuing to work to boost college completion rates to support a bright future for both the students and West Virginia.

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