Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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Tom Walton

Hiram president tackles lack of student persistence


Thomas Chema helped get Fifth Third Field built in downtown Toledo more than a decade ago. Now president of Hiram College, he is working to to raise the percentage of the school’s students who graduate within six years.

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Most Toledoans will remember Thomas Chema as the persistent guy who helped get Fifth Third Field built 11 years ago. Today, Mr. Chema’s challenge is to instill that same kind of persistence in the college students he leads.

Mr. Chema is the president of Hiram College, 35 miles or so southeast of another ballpark he helped build, the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field. His primary focus these days is reversing a disturbing fact of college life: Too many students fail to finish what they started.

Statistics from Ohio’s public and private four-year institutions expose what Mr. Chema calls an “attainment gap.” The average percentage of college students who graduate in six years or fewer is not impressive: 58 percent for whites, 47 percent for Hispanics, and just 33 percent for African-American students.

At Hiram, a respected liberal arts school, the tally is not much better: a graduation rate of 62 percent in four years and 68 percent in six years. That leaves a lot of students who, for whatever reasons, left school without a degree.

Closer to home, the numbers are worse.

At the University of Toledo, the latest four-year graduation rate is just 22 percent, and the six-year rate is 46 percent. The first-year retention rate is only 65 percent. In other words, one freshman in three doesn‘t come back for his or her sophomore year.

At Bowling Green State University, the four-year graduation rate is 31 percent and the six-year rate is 58 percent. The retention rate among first-year students is 72 percent. One freshman in four doesn’t return, and only three in 10 get a degree in the traditional four years.

Many first-year students, out of their comfort zone for the first time, get homesick. Finances are a big problem for some, though Hiram tries to retain students by guaranteeing freshmen that the tuition they pay at enrollment will not increase for at least four years. Even with the guarantee, a year at Hiram still costs about $34,000 when all expenses are added up.

But poor academic performance traps most of the dropouts. Mr. Chema has an interesting theory about that.

“Far too many 18-to-22-year-olds are quick to drop out of school the moment something goes wrong or things get difficult,” he noted in a recent newsletter sent to parents and friends of the college.

In other words, higher education is hard work, and many entering freshmen are accustomed to doing well in high school without a lot of effort.

“They appear to have had little experience with adversity,” Mr. Chema says, “and therefore are blown away by the demands of college-level work.”

What’s especially a concern at Hiram, and presumably elsewhere, is the number of students who fail to perform academically even though their high school grades and ACT/SAT scores suggested they should do fine. Perseverance is not part of their makeup.

“They want it now, and they definitely want it to be easy,” Mr. Chema laments.

Many students lack even the motivation to attend classes regularly — a stunning waste of their or their parents’ money.

Mr. Chema acknowledges that this feeling of entitlement is not easily understood by his own generation, which “ grew up delaying gratification and didn’t even realize that’s what we were doing.”

Most young people have only known convenience. They can text an instant message with their thumbs. They can take a mobile call at the push of a button. Many expect to become brilliant just as easily, but there is no app for that.

Hiram addresses the problem with programs that other schools might want to emulate. Preorientation testing determines writing, language, and math skills. Summer workshops with older students introduce newcomers to the campus.

New students move in early, socialize, and meet in groups to discuss the summer reading assignment and get connected before school starts.

UT has a retention task force and will launch summer “bridge” programs this year to help incoming freshmen acclimate. Another bit of good news: BGSU ranked first in Ohio and third nationally by exceeding its “predicted” graduation rate by 14 percent in US News and World Report’s 2012 college rankings.

None of that will matter if students don’t bring to campus a greater appreciation of hard work. The cost of higher education is undeniably steep, but if young people are not motivated to accept and handle the challenges and demands placed before them in the hallowed halls, the cost to America will be far greater.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

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