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After a 20-minute walk, and a 10-minute wait in the rain, DeAngelo Bowie catches the bus to get to work. Bowie, 24, dropped out of Georgia State after financial problems derailed him from his dream of becoming a history teacher. Credit: Chad Rhym/ Chad.Rhym@ajc.com

In 2011, Georgia launched an effort to tackle this issue called Complete College Georgia. The work began with a $1 million grant from the Complete College America Foundation, a national organization that works with states to improve graduation rates.

As part of this program, each institution has to develop annual strategies to retrain and graduate students, such as shortening the amount of time it takes students get a degree, improving agreements between two- and four-year schools so credits transfer more easily and placing fewer students in only remedial courses during their first semester.  The system has also started a program called Go Back, Move Ahead to get adults to return to school by making it easier to enroll and offering flexible course schedules. In some cases, people can also use military or volunteer experience to earn credits.

Related: States have cut money for higher education 17 percent since the recession

In 2011, the University System of Georgia had a 74 percent first-year retention rate. In 2016 it was 79 percent. Graduation rates, however, have not had a similar improvement; six-year graduation rates at the state’s universities remain at 57 percent.

Governor Nathan Deal speaks before signing several bills, including HB 338, in Atlanta, on Thursday, April 27, 2017. HB 338 aims to allocate support for low-performing schools in need of assistance. Credit: DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM

Retention rates at the Technical College System have stayed around 67 percent since 2011, but graduation rates are up, from 54 percent to 70 percent. But fewer people are enrolled in technical schools, meaning the system conferred about 3,000 fewer degrees, diplomas and certificates in 2016 than 2011.

Officials agree that the stability of Georgia’s economy hinges on the success of Complete College Georgia. As Gov. Nathan Deal put it in 2012, six months after the launch of the program: “To have a successful future in Georgia, and remain competitive nationwide and globally, we have to have an educated workforce, and that means we need to do a better job getting people into college, make sure they receive a high-quality education and then graduate them.”

“Once I started messing up, I lost faith. Honestly, I didn’t know how to handle it. I knew I needed more time for my studies, but I didn’t see any way out of it financially.”

Bowie says he won’t give up on his dream of returning to school and becoming a teacher.  Many students share similar sentiments and some Georgia college administrators refer to them as “stopping out” rather than dropping out.

In 2015, his stepfather, who had been a steadying force in the family, dropped dead from a heart ailment. “It was like losing two legs off a chair,” Bowie said.

His mom and four siblings were evicted and became homeless, living in temporary housing in a motel for ten months. Last fall, she was able to rent a house and keep the family together. Bowie respects his mother’s tenacity and devotion to her family, but he says he knows that her lack of a degree has held her back.

“My mom graduated a year early from high school,” said Bowie. “She’s really smart, but she never went to college. I feel like it’s history repeating itself.”

He said if he could clear his loans and get some financial assistance, he knows he could make it.

“I would put my focus on school,” he said, staring out into the parking lot in front of his house. “I would want A’s, just because I know what I can do. If I could actually put in the effort, I know could graduate with honors.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report in a collaboration with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Meredith Kolodner is a senior investigative reporter. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute....

Sarah Butrymowicz is senior editor for investigations. For her first four years at The Hechinger Report, she was a staff writer, covering k-12 education, traveling the country and developing an affinity...

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