Alexander Cooper, Special to the Chanticleer
Austin Lovelace was just one of 1,352 students who received undergraduate degrees from Jacksonville State during the University’s 2016-2017 fiscal year. At the spring 2017 graduation ceremony, Lovelace received a degree in geography from the College of Arts and Sciences, successfully closing out his time at Jacksonville State that began in the fall of 2013.
For many generations of Americans, this four-year journey to a college degree was the expectation. A degree at the end of four years of school fit like a period at the end of a sentence. According to JSU’s 2017-2018 fact book, however, Lovelace was a member of an enrollment class made up of around 1,792 students.
This puts Jacksonville State’s 4-year graduation rate at around 75%, and raises the question of what happened to the other 440 students whose take at JSU wasn’t punctuated with a graduation ceremony.
“Our graduation rate is not where it should be,” said Dr. Timothy King, the Vice President of Student Affairs at Jacksonville State. According to Dr. King, the most common struggle for students trying to get a degree is financial resources.
“[The question] ‘How am I going to pay for this semester?,’ and the stress that causes can interfere with their well-being and their ability to cope well with their classes and anything else they are trying to do,” he said. “That, to me, is the biggest factor that can have an impact on students, whether they are incoming freshman or continuing students.”
Not all students leave JSU for financial reasons, though. Cindy Chung started at JSU as a freshman in 2013 as well but transferred to Samford to attend pharmacy school. Samford and Auburn make up the only two universities in Alabama that offer pharmacy programs, so for Chung, transferring was a requirement for her to pursue the career she wanted.
“My goal is to become a pharmacist,” she said, “so I knew I’d have to go to pharmacy school. There were a lot of classes that I couldn’t have taken at JSU.”
While at JSU, Chung majored in pre-professional biology and took mostly general education courses.
“Jacksonville was close to home,” she said about why she chose to take her basic classes at the University, “and I got a really nice scholarship.”
According to Dr. King, scholarships are vital for students who attend Jacksonville State.
“Without them, I don’t think a lot of students could come to school,” he said. “College is expensive wherever you go, and the population of students that attend school here, for the most part, don’t have tons of money. Scholarships are key for us.”
While some students do end up leaving Jacksonville State for financial reasons, there are a few, like Michael Panik, who just decide that a college degree isn’t necessary for the career they want to pursue.
“I think JSU is a really fantastic place,” Panik said, “but I’m a staunch believer that college isn’t for everybody.”
Panik stopped attending Jacksonville State in the spring of 2016 after spending five years in school and now works as the chief of technology for Plexamedia, a web design company based out of Birmingham.
He says that he left of his own volition to work for the company full-time, and feels that most of the knowledge he relies on in his field didn’t come from Jacksonville State, but the persistence to teach himself.
“I was spending so much money on a degree that I wasn’t going to use,” he said about his time at JSU.
Panik also argues that with information in our age being more readily available than it ever has been, paths to a career, especially one in technology, that don’t include a college degree are becoming more viable.
“Go teach yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to love what you do nowadays, and if you don’t care enough to educate yourself then you’re in the wrong field.”
Not everyone has the resolve or the resources to jump right into the workplace without spending some time at college. In addition, college classes can help students focus on what they really want to do. Austin Lovelace says his experience at JSU was instrumental in helping him determine which field he wanted to go into.
“As a freshman, I came in not knowing what to study,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got started with my major that I really found out what I wanted to do.”
Lovelace praises JSU’s geography department and its professors for helping him to figure out what he could do with his degree.
Now a graduate student at Clemson University studying city and regional planning, Lovelace mentioned that he finds himself going back to the knowledge he gained at JSU often.
“I think I learned a lot at JSU,” he said. “College is not easy, but in the end, I knew it would be worth it.”
Dr. King is also still a believer that a degree from JSU is worth it in the end, and he mentioned that the first year is where the university sees most students leave the school.
“If you start your first semester off bad it’s almost impossible to recover,” he said. “People can recover, but it takes a lot of effort.”
He said STU 101, the freshman experience class, was developed as a result of the school trying to implement ways to make the transition from high school easier for students, especially those who might not have a lot of resources to fall back on.
“We have a lot of first-generation college students,” King said. “They are coming here without any kind of institutional knowledge. They depend on the university, and if the university can’t connect with that student then they are floundering, and they may flounder for two or three years until their financial aid runs out, so then they don’t graduate.”
King said that he has made a proposal for JSU to invest in predictive analytics software that would help the administration to meet students’ needs.
“It’s overwhelming for them; all of these different things they have to do,” he said, “and it’s overwhelming for us.”
King said that it has only been relatively recently that graduation rate has started to play a part in the amount of funding a school receives as well.
“For years graduation rate didn’t matter,” he said. “We were getting the same funding regardless, but now it does matter, and it matters not only because we aren’t getting funding, but it matters because it’s what we should be doing. We have to get everybody on the same page of believing that we work for the students.”
*Alexander Cooper graduated from JSU in December 2017 with a degree in Digital Journalism. This piece was written as part of his Advanced Reporting course*