Report gives higher education mixed scores

ATLANTA - Georgia colleges and universities do a good job of graduating their students on time.

But Georgia doesn't do as well preparing high school students for college and - like most states - fails to make a college education affordable for enough families, despite the popular HOPE Scholarship program.

Those are among the findings of a report being released today by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an 8-year-old nonpartisan think tank.

The center has been grading states on the quality of higher education in several categories every other year since 2000.

Georgia received an "A'' for completion, with the nation's highest percentage of students completing certificate or degree programs on time, according to the report.

But the state scored only a "C+'' in preparing kids for college and a "D+'' in participation in college among its young people, reflecting a declining high-school graduation rate.

According to the report, the chances that a Georgia ninth-grader will enroll in college within four years dropped by 10 percent during the past decade, compared to a decline of only 2 percent nationally.

While the country as a whole did much better than Georgia in participation, scoring a "B,'' the national grade for preparation was the same "C+.''

"Our future educational and economic leadership is in jeopardy if the nation's young population ... do not keep pace with the levels of college access and completion of earlier generations,'' said Patrick Callan, the center's president.

Georgia education policy makers have long been painfully aware of the state's low high school graduation rate, at 54 percent among the nation's lowest.

A number of efforts have been undertaken to boost those numbers, the latest being the graduation coaches who went to work in high schools across the state with the start of the fall semester last month.

Gov. Sonny Perdue asked the General Assembly last winter for $21 million for the initiative, and lawmakers provided $16.8 million.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said putting former teachers in the schools to focus on getting kids to graduate is an encouraging step.

"If you have less than a high school diploma, there's not much out there in the work world for you,'' he said.

The report also slapped Georgia and 43 other states with an "F'' for affordability.

In Georgia, the center said net college costs for low- and middle-income students to attend two- or four-year institutions represent about one-third of their family income, even figuring in what HOPE covers in tuition and fees for students whose grades qualify them for the program.

Erroll Davis, chancellor of the state university system, attributed Georgia's low grade for affordability to the fact that the state doesn't offer need-based financial aid, unlike most of the states that received higher marks for affordability.

Davis also pointed to collaborative efforts under way to address many of the issues raised in the report in more coordinated ways. He is part of a committee of state education agency heads that has begun meeting informally, which also includes state School Superintendent Kathy Cox and Mike Vollmer, commissioner of the Department of Technical and Adult Education.

"We are clearly not where we would like to be,'' Davis said in a written statement. "We are working to create a more holistic approach, and we are optimistic our efforts will pay off over time.''