Focus on the Presidency: Linking Educational Attainment and Economic Prosperity

By Steve W. Wrigley, PhD    //    Volume 27,  Number 4   //    July/August 2019

The University System of Georgia (USG) prides itself on its place within the US public higher education landscape. Governed by a single board of regents, we are a system of 26 distinct institutions that range from public research universities to comprehensive universities, state universities, and state colleges—four academic sectors enrolling more than 328,000 students.

We are large. But our size enables us to take advantage of common efficiencies, something that positively impacts our affordability and helps us advance our top priority: graduating more students. In 2011 we joined forces with Complete College America, a national nonprofit organization that strives to advance higher education graduation rates, and since then we have seen a 21 percent increase in the number of students earning degrees annually.

Our economy rewards educational attainment. Within the next 10 years approximately 65 percent of jobs in both the state of Georgia and the US as a whole will require some education beyond high school. Presently, only 47 percent of Georgia’s work-force has some postsecondary education. Of even greater concern is research showing that 99 percent of post-Great Recession jobs went to workers with a postsecondary education and that 70 percent of those jobs went to workers with at least a bachelor’s degree.

How can we ensure that our students complete their degrees? Following success in other areas we have begun focusing on first-year students. Each of our 26 institutions has launched the Momentum Year, our newest data-driven initiative centered on student success. Momentum Year is a suite of strategies designed to help USG students in their crucial first year of college. We work with them to guide them on a path to achieve their educational goals, including degree completion and on-time graduation.

More than 50 percent of students who enroll in college and are undecided about their major will drop out before they choose a major. But of the first-year students taking at least three courses connected to what they think they want to study, 40 percent are more likely to graduate than are the students who do not take those three courses. We also know that students who pass English and math their first year are 10 times more likely to graduate than those who don’t.

Each incoming USG freshman needs to know what academic choices they have and they should get help finding the best fit. And no first-year student enrolled in a USG institution this fall will be undecided. Instead, our students are encouraged to take 30 credit hours their first year, with a minimum of three courses in a selected major or academic focus area.

We know that we serve students better by cutting time to graduation. Georgia State University, which has pioneered this work, has seen the time it takes students to get their degree drop by more than half a semester per student since 2011. For graduating classes, that’s an estimated savings of about $15 million in tuition and fees.

The Momentum Year approach also affects students in other ways. Students arriving on any of our campuses unprepared for college-level English and math are directly enrolled in regular, for-credit classes and receive focused tutoring—a new corequisite approach to teaching remedial courses that has seen pass rates jump from percentages in the teens to 70 percent.

We are developing a Know More, Borrow Less financial literacy campaign to help students make smart borrowing choices. Our expanding use of digital textbooks is saving students $19 million annually. And our new nexus degree combines academic rigor, work-based experience, and industry needs in such high-demand career fields as cyber-security and financial technology.

As educators, we believe in the intrinsic worth of an education. But there is a direct link between educational attainment and economic prosperity. We need to be about both. One way to get there is through these advances in student success efforts.

Steve W. Wrigley, PhD, is the chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

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