In a recent WJHL article, ETSU President Brian Noland discussed ETSU’s recent changes to its mission statement.
The goal is to have 60 percent of students graduate by 2025, an 18 percent increase over the current rate. To accomplish this, the university has taken many steps to help students, including hiring new faculty and starting new programs to help students who are statistically less likely to graduate.
This shift was a reaction to the changes to Tennessee’s funding formula several years ago, which encourages universities to focus on graduation rates, rather than enrollment rates. However, this change could have negative effects on the community that ETSU has served for years.
In the interview with WJHL, Noland said that the mission of ETSU is to offer an education to people in Central Appalachia. According to CollegeData.com the university currently accepts 79 percent of applicants. Additionally, ETSU’s admission guidelines do not stipulate a strict minimum high school GPA, and CollegeData reports that 6 percent of enrolled freshman had a GPA of 2.00-2.49 (on a 4.0 scale).
So, is there a conflict between the university’s mission to provide an education to as many of those in Central Appalachia as possible and its goal to raise graduation rates? Maybe.
It is widely known that high school GPA is a better predictor of college success than SAT or ACT scores, and this was confirmed again in 2014. The study found that cumulative GPAs in college followed the same trend as students’ GPAs in high school.
This might indicate that those who graduated high school with a GPA of 2.00 should graduate ETSU with a similar GPA, but it’s foolish to think that this would be the case. Obviously, someone who graduates from high school is not guaranteed to graduate from college.
Looking just at GPAs, ETSU’s graduation requirements state that students must earn a minimum GPA of 2.0 in all courses, so a student with a cumulative high school GPA of 2.00 to 2.49 is dangerously close to becoming ineligible for graduation.
Given this information, though ETSU is clearly helping the region by accepting those who have a lower GPA, this practice might no longer be in the university’s best interest. (And it might not have ever been in the students’ best interests. Taking out student loans to attend a university without earning a degree isn’t a good investment.)
With the change to the funding, the rational economic decision for the university is to require a more competitive GPA for admission, as these students have a better chance of graduating. This would eliminate at least the bottom tier of GPAs, or 6 percent of enrolled freshmen.
So where would those students go if ETSU increases this requirement as a way of increasing graduation rates?
Community college seems like the logical next-best option, and this could be what Tennessee lawmakers were aiming for when they passed the law that changed the way the HOPE Scholarship funds two-year institutions years ago. Beginning in 2015, more HOPE money was available to students enrolled in these institutions, like community colleges.
The changes ETSU is making or could be forced to make in the future to increase graduation rates are part of a larger plan for colleges and universities in Tennessee that is focused on helping students connect with the type of institution at which they will be most successful.