New Reports Help Answer Expanding College Opportunity Challenge

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by Ronald Roach

First Lady Michelle Obama gives a college access speech at D.C.'s Bell Multicultural High School in November.

First Lady Michelle Obama gives a college access speech at D.C.’s Bell Multicultural High School in November.

On the day the Obama Administration convened a White House summit on expanding college opportunity for low-income Americans, The Education Trust advocacy organization released a pair of reports highlighting measures institutions can take to boost enrollment and graduation rates of underrepresented minorities and low-income students.

In “Learning from High-Performing and Fast-Gaining Institutions” and “Leading Change: Increasing Graduation Rates at CSU-Northridge”, Education Trust researchers document case studies and strategies that institutions—ranging from those with open admissions to highly competitive flagship public universities and selective private schools—can employ to increase “success rates for low-income students and students of color.”

Release of the new reports has coincided with the Obama Administration’s call for higher education institutions to improve their college-going and completion rates among low-income and minority students. Just prior to the summit, the White House announced Wednesday that colleges, nonprofit groups and foundations had pledged to more than 100 program commitments to help thousands of low-income students earn a college degree.

“Leading colleges and universities are teaching us that just letting more students in isn’t enough,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Washington-based Education Trust, in a statement. “Colleges need to assume their share of responsibility for making sure students have the supports they need to complete.

“The growth of economic inequality and decline of social mobility in recent decades has made it that much more important that we radically increase the number of low-income students and students of color completing a college education,” Haycock added.

Joseph Yeado, a reports co-author and higher education research and policy analyst with The Education Trust, said that with American colleges and universities being challenged to increase college access and helping boost graduation rates for low-income and minority students, the new reports by The Education Trust provide compelling examples of institutions that have made strides to improve success for its students.

“It’s important to keep in mind that three-quarters of all college students attend a public institution,” he said, “and so what the reports highlight are that there are schools that are making significant gains in raising retention and graduation rates for low-income students and students of color. And these schools have done so while maintaining access and diversity.”

In the first report, “Learning from High-Performing and Fast-Gaining Institutions”, Yeado and his co-authors detail practices at eight universities that have experienced improved graduation rates, including those of underrepresented minorities and low-income students, over a significant period of time. While they had approaches that varied from one institution to another, the school efforts contained three components the institutions shared in common.

The components are campus leadership focused on student success as an institution-wide priority; a campus leader experienced in and dedicated to using data science and quantitative analysis as tools for improving graduation rates for all students; and the continuous use of data to identify problems and prescribe solutions.

Among highlights from the eight institutions, the report cites:

1)    Florida State University – The 31,000-student university increased graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients from 61 percent in 2005 to 72 percent in 2012, which is nearly the same rate as non-Pell students.

2)    Georgia State University – A diverse urban institution where underrepresented minority students graduate at a higher rate than their White peers.

3)    San Diego State University – Graduation rates for Latino students — a quarter of all undergraduates — nearly doubled from 31.4 percent in 2002 to 58.8 percent in 2011.

4)    University of North Carolina–Greensboro – The 15,000-student public university has eliminated the graduation rate gap between Black and White students.

5)    Virginia Commonwealth University – The school increased the graduation rate for Black students nearly 13 points to roughly the same rates as its White students.

Other institutions in the report are the University of Southern California, the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire and the University of Alabama.

In the second study, “Leading Change: Increasing Graduation Rates at CSU-Northridge”, the co-authors present a case study on how former California State University-Northridge president Jolene Kester demonstrated focused leadership, facilitated shared governance and relied on the expert use of data to enable the school to nearly double its overall graduation rate from 26 percent to 48 percent over a decade. In addition, Latino graduation rates increased over a five-year period from 34 percent to 42 percent while completion rates for low-income students jumped from 34 percent to 45 percent.

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