President Michael Sorrell increased the retention rate at Paul Quinn College to 83 percent from about 60 or 65 percent “because we engaged and we intruded.”
WASHINGTON — When Michael Sorrell assumed the presidency at Paul Quinn College, one of the first things he did was examine what successful small colleges were doing to achieve their results.
The exploration led him to visit similarly sized institutions throughout the country, from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., where they “give you one year to prove you can cut it,” to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., a school that has a 90 percent retention rate and a high rate of alumni giving.
“You don’t get to Walla Walla by accident,” Sorrell said. “But it was worth the trip.”
After the campus visit, Paul Quinn began to adopt some of the most successful strategies that he discovered, from personalized recruiting like other institutions use to recruit athletes, to “intrusive counseling,” in order to turn things around.
Retention rates at Paul Quinn subsequently increased to 83 percent from about 60 or 65 percent “because we engaged and we intruded,” Sorrell said.
“Some students don’t like it,” Sorrell said Tuesday during a panel discussion held on Capitol Hill as part of the NAFEO 39th National Dialogue on Blacks in Higher Education.
“I don’t like the fact that you don’t graduate,” Sorrell said was his response. “So we’ll see who wins. It will be us.”
Sorrell was one of several HBCU presidents who shared success stories Tuesday during the panel discussion, titled “Promising Practices: College Persistence and Attainment.”
Some, but not all, of the institutions were part of Walmart Foundation-funded mentor-protégé initiative that seeks to help minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, identify promising practices for improving student retention, graduation and achievement at HBCUs and other MSIs.
At Paul Quinn, the newly-adopted practices involved personal recruiting to get a better sense of the prospective students coming in. The university also did away with open admissions and started requiring at least a 2.5 GPA. Prospective students were also required to write a 500-word essay on the educational ethos at Paul Quinn because “we wanted to attract people that were engaged in what we were doing,” Sorrell said. Students were also required to write at least one paper in every class.
“If you write a paper using the language you used in text [messaging], you’re going to get an F,” Sorrell explained.
The school also implemented a summer bridge program with courses taught by top-level administrators — including Sorrell as president — to build better relationships with students.
“That has helped us immensely,” Sorrell said. The school also established a retention coordinator position and an “early warning” system, and began to require all students to apply for at least four external scholarships and eight if they’re athletes. The school also began to focus on majors in fields that pay, so students can “see the benefits of going to college in a measurable way.”
The next change Paul Quinn plans to implement is a focus on experiential learning, which involves having students develop solutions to problems that take place in their communities.
“It’s amazing what happens when you give students a problem they can relate to and care about,” Sorrell said.
Fitz Hill, president at Arkansas Baptist College, spoke of how his university converted its entire campus into a federal work-study program and created jobs for students by starting a car wash and a soul food restaurant.
The idea, he said, is to “provide for ourselves.”
David Wilson, president at Morgan State University, spoke of an initiative where his college set aside $50,000 in order to offer $2,000 each to “near-completers” from the cohort of 2005 to get them to finish up their coursework.
He said 40 students took Morgan State up on the offer, and 20 walked across the stage, thereby increasing the graduation rate from 28 to 30 percent.
Wilson said the Maryland Higher Education Commission plans to take the practice statewide.
Wilson also began to conduct town hall meetings to give faculty and students a venue to voice their concerns. In the coming years, he said, the university will put a stronger emphasis on having students take 15 credits per semester in order to get them to graduate within four years to save themselves time and money.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus stopped by to share their thoughts on the importance of HBCUs and to invite the HBCU leaders to become more engaged with them in order to garner more resources.
CBC members included U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who commended the HBCUs for sharing best practices to improve retention and graduation rates.
“I am tired of low retention rates, low graduation rates,” Cummings said. “I’m tired of people saying I went to Howard, I went to wherever, and not being able to say that they graduated.”
What about graduation Rates???
Retention rates are important, but more important are graduation rates. Many HBCU’s are not delivering a high quality education to their students. You can retain 100% of your student body but if your quality of education sucks, you are wasting everybody’s time, effort and money.
G E Diego
April 17, 2013 at 11:10 am
I applaud Presidents of HBCUs in researching ‘best practices’ to take back to their institution for utilization. I hope that after attempting to replicate initiatives that appear to be ‘effective’ in retaining and graduating students will be supported by empirical evidence that isolates those components of the retention-focused initiatives that indeed have the most impact in achieving the goals of the institution. The issues of what works can be a conundrum that in many cases has to be dissected through both formative and summative assessment. I hope that those front line faculty and staff who are working with students on a daily basis are given the opportunity to provide input regarding the best way to implement the dimensions of the various programs and strategies that will optimize the desired results.
As a peer reviewer for one of the six accrediting agencies, I understand the importance of accountability and the need to improve student learning, student retention, and graduation rates among the students served within any institution. (There is always room for improvement.) Based on my experience as a Director of Assessment as well as a Peer Reviewer, I know that professional development that provides training for frontline staff is critical in helping to formulate and measure outcomes that are meaningful and serve students in the way that achieves the educational mission of the institution. My concern, however, is that those personnel (faculty and staff) who have the most knowledge and experience about how to facilitate any of the ‘best practice’ strategies are not left out of the conversation when it comes to the implementation of what is perceived as ‘what works’ in increasing student retention and graduation rates. One size does not fit all and adapting any programs or strategies requires a collective effort from all key campus stakeholders.
Jerald L. Henderson, Ph.D.
April 17, 2013 at 12:17 pm
Graduation rates can’t come over night. If this is a newly implemented philosophy of procedures then you must look at the incoming cohort’s graduation rate.
April 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm
Love this. The environment at an HBCU is very different for various reasons. And yes, sometimes you MUST be intrusive to make sure the student realizes that THIS is BUSINESS!!! Otherwise, college is a very expensive trial of life! Sometimes, even the best students still need common information. . . . . tips and tricks of the trade that we professionals have learned and know. Yes, intrusive is among the best practices for advising.
April 17, 2013 at 3:30 pm
President Michael Sorrell
The community of Highland Hills is very proud of Paul Quinn College, very proud of the one who made the difference. President Michael Sorrell.
Kudos to the students, faculty, and staff.
April 17, 2013 at 6:04 pm
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