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Expert: More focus needed on college juniors and seniors

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- With 68 percent of high school graduates enrolling in a college but only 27 percent of Americans possessing a four-year degree, Colorado State University Academic Advising Director Blane Harding told Albany State University faculty and staff that a more concerted effort is needed to retain college students.

Harding spoke Wednesday morning to about 150 ASU employees for more than an hour during the third and final day of the university's annual faculty and staff conference at the ACAD Auditorium.

"In my opinion, we've wasted so much talent in this country," said Harding, a 21-year Colorado State employee who has also taught African-American history and ethnic studies courses for 18 years. "The U.S. ranks 12th in the world in terms of college degrees.

For a country that emphasizes education, we got to do better than that."

One of the biggest suggestions Harding had for the audience was to put more energy and resources into retaining college juniors and seniors instead of paying so much attention to freshmen and sophomores.

"The files in my office of students who have dropped out are more than the ones that are graduating, and that's the same across the country," Harding said. "We need to do a better job of reaching these students."

Harding talked about the issue further with The Albany Herald after the meeting.

"We're losing half of the African-American students between freshman and junior year, and senior year it's a little bit more," he said. "That's why it's 17 percent of all African Americans in this country that have a four-year degree as opposed to the national average of 27 percent.

"(People) need to put in more thought, not necessarily time, so that it's not all academics. We need to get them involved in campus life like mentoring and leadership positions like student government. I'd get seniors and juniors to mentor freshmen and then they'd take ownership. Once they take ownership and claim the university, that's when the alumni dollars go up."

Harding said that if more colleges would think of their current students in terms of potential alumni, they would improve their school's future standing.

"The pride for the school will grow," said Harding, who annually makes 50-60 presentations around the country. "That's why you have institutions where you have third, fourth and fifth generations that went to that institution. And that helps retention, money and they are Rams for the rest of their lives. It makes a huge, huge difference."

Understanding today's students and where they come from would also greatly help a university's staff, Harding told the crowd. He recently realized how much better students responded to text messages compared to e-mails and voice mails. He also said it's good to know students' lingo. For example, one of his students used the word sick to mean something was cool or good.

"We (need to) acknowledge their words, where they're at and that they can make decisions on their own. We are advisers, not dictators," said Harding, who has served as a retention faculty member with the Council for Opportunity in Education. "The most important thing we can do is have respect for each of our students. As soon as we give them our respect, they value us and come and see us. The key to all of this is getting respect from these students."

Harding also encouraged the audience to pay just as much attention to the high achieving students as they do to the less successful ones.

"An African-American that has a 3.6 GPA is just as likely to drop out of college in this country as one that has a 2.6 GPA," he said. "We have to pay attention and communicate with all our students. Students are always the center of what we do. We need to be all on the same page.

Listening skills is crucial. Once you ask the right questions, then you get the answers to the real questions."

Challenging statistics and myths were other areas that Harding used to challenge the crowd during his fast-moving PowerPoint presentation.

"There's more African-American males on campus today and they are well behind African-American women, but they have been increasing every year since 2003," he said. "They need to know they fit on campus. And once they know they fit in, they stay."

College administrators would also be wise to realize that African-American college students generally are older, Harding said.

"Black students come to school later and have more responsibilities and are older students," he said. "They are coming to campus 25, 27, 30 years old and we can't talk to them like they're 18 years old."

ASU Reference Librarian Eddie Pearson appreciated Harding's presentation and found it "up to date and informative." Judith Rosenbaum, an assistant professor in English, modern languages and mass communications, was also impressed.

"I really liked it; very informative," she said. "It was nice to hear it from a students' perspective. It was very inspirational."

Harding said his first trip to the Good Life City had been pleasant. He also was impressed with Albany State University, especially how it aimed to have unity among its employees by having them attend the conference together instead of splitting it up by departments.

"It's very friendly," he said. "People have been very accommodating.

They're trying to move forward and whatever your position is that everyone has the same information, and that's not always the case for all colleges. Some colleges break it up into categories with advisers, faculty and administrators."