What Will Be When We Grow Up?

My son is a rising high school senior and is pondering his future career and college plans. I have become keenly aware of how little career advice he has had and how little he knows about choosing a college in spite of the fact that his mom has spent more than two decades in higher education. He told friends of mine recently he was considering MIT as a backup school. Sigh. 

For many years, Dalton State was a two-year college. Many students graduated with associate degrees, but many others transferred after a few semesters to complete their bachelor degrees at four-year colleges or universities. We considered all of these students to be successful because our goal was to help them get a degree, whether here or elsewhere. Today, the majority of our students are enrolled in one of our 19 baccalaureate degree programs, and we want them to finish with us. We are finding more often today that we are a “destination” school rather than a “back up plan” or a “stepping stone” to other institutions. We are sending students to graduate and professional schools after graduating from DSC rather than transferring them to complete their undergraduate degrees. Despite these changes, too many students leave us without graduating with even an associate degree. Why? There are many reasons that often have to do with finances or life circumstances, but we want to try to impact these students and help them stay enrolled with us through graduation. 

Recently the leadership team at Dalton State enjoyed a day and a half retreat. We brought in a colleague from the University System office who facilitated meaningful conversation about how we can be more effective setting a course for the College. In these conversations, we discussed the future of DSC and our goals for the institution both long-term and for the coming year. We agreed that we want to be the best state college in the University System of Georgia, and that our focus for the coming academic year will be on increasing retention and graduation rates of our students. It turns out we do a great job of recruiting and enrolling students, but they do not all graduate. We are not doing them any favors by recruiting them if we can’t help them leave here with a degree in hand.

We already have in place many strategies to help students succeed. We also use surveys and exit interviews to explore why students leave. We will examine our processes and policies and make needed changes. It will take time for us to study this problem and address it and then see the results of our efforts, but it will be worth it.

On a final note, you might wonder if we shouldn’t be striving to become a university. Well someday that may be the case, but for now we want to focus on being the best undergraduate institution we can be. Becoming a university is much more significant than changing our name and letterhead or even adding graduate programs. Students would be held to higher admission standards and would pay higher tuition and fees. Faculty would be expected to focus much more on research than teaching. Our access mission would fundamentally change, and we would not be serving the population we currently serve. Dalton State is known for transforming lives. Our faculty and staff are dedicated to developing and educating young people (and not so young people).

Becoming a university is something that will take a great deal of study and conversation. We may be ready for that someday. But for now, we want to get better at serving undergraduate students who deserve a quality education at an affordable price. This is my calling and my passion. I could be earning, perhaps, a million dollar salary elsewhere, but I am called to serve Dalton State College. Thank you for your support.