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Urban Colleges Dealing With Unique Retention Issues

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by Lois Elfman


Dr. Cathy Jones, associate dean of first-year experience at Johnson C. Smith University, says that many of the HBCU’s students are first-generation college students and often have problems navigating the educational landscape.

Dr. Cathy Jones, associate dean of first-year experience at Johnson C. Smith University, says that many of the HBCU’s students are first-generation college students and often have problems navigating the educational landscape.

No sprawling campus, a majority of commuter students, many ­first-generation college students and the necessity to work make retention and graduation efforts especially challenging at urban institutions.

“We’re trying to make sure at a majority-minority institution, at a commuter institution, at a first-generation, access-focused institution that we do not take a canonical approach to solving this problem,” says Dr. Vijay Pendakur, associate vice president for student affairs at California State University, Fullerton, speaking about issues of student retention and graduation.

“Cal State Fullerton, much like many public-access-focused schools in the country, really struggled to connect historic commitments to access, which is admitting students and admitting a diverse body of students, with the reality of equitable education and timely graduation,” he says.

These are challenges that public and private colleges and universities both large and small in urban environments face each year. These institutions admit local students who show potential but may not be fully prepared for college. Many if not most students work part or full time and have family demands. Since they often don’t live on campus, too, it is harder for them to become fully engaged with college life. In addition to traditional retention efforts—tutoring, mentoring and counseling—schools take decisive and innovative steps to engage students academically and socially.

Utilizing resources

Monica Michalski, assistant dean of freshman studies and academic enhancement at St. Francis, a private college with approximately 2,800 students in Brooklyn, New York, says St. Francis utilizes Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan as extensions of the campus.

“In some ways, having the urban campus has been a benefit to us because we’re so centrally located,” Michalski says. “Students are excited about the resources here.

“We’ve added a couple of really cool things to our programs and we continue to do that by partnering with the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the New York Stock Exchange,” she adds. “Students are getting more of a diverse program where they can learn in and out of the classroom.”

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Mindful of the work schedules and commutes some students face, the program Removing Obstacles to Success—for students who are struggling (anyone with an average below 2.0)—has added online video workshops about time management, study strategies, stress management and career focus that can be accessed 24/7.
Guidance toward a major begins upon entry. Non-academic events are scheduled at specific “activity hours” twice a week, allowing students to forge connections to the college that help with motivation and a sense of community. Academic events, lectures and co-curricular events are also held at these times.

DePaul, a university with approximately 16,000 students in Chicago, has limited dormitory space. While freshmen are encouraged to live on campus, only about 20 percent of the total undergraduate population lives in the dorms. Dr. Caryn Chaden, associate provost for student success and accreditation, says it has always been a challenge to encourage students to come to campus events. As part of the first-year curriculum, students participate in the Chicago Quarter through either the Discover or Explore Chicago courses, choosing a specific city-based topic. They go on several field trips and then meet during the academic quarter for a more academic view of their topic. “We find the more that we can help students articulate experiences in the city that contribute to their education, everybody wins,” says Chaden. “Every student at DePaul does an experiential learning thing. That has made experiential learning part of the fabric of the university.”

For example, environmental science instructor Shawn Bailey’s Discover Chicago class visits urban gardens, even the hard-to-get-permission-for garden atop City Hall. It is part of the institutional mission to reframe retention strategies, a significant part of which involves connecting the university and its environs.

“I think what makes the DePaul experience special is the way there are experiences incorporated into the curriculum,” Chaden says. “Our retention and graduation rates have gone up over the past 10 years.”

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Historically Black Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) has approximately 1,300 students in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is currently one of four institutions awarded funds from The Duke Endowment. JCSU has used the funds to hire a campus case manager/community liaison and alcohol/drug abuse case manager for the Student Success Resiliency Program. The objective is to assist in monitoring and assessing students’ mental, physical, social and emotional health.

“Because many of our students are first-generation college students, many times they have a problem accessing resources and being able to navigate the educational landscape,” says Dr. Cathy Jones, associate dean of first-year experience at JCSU. “With the help of the case managers, as well as all of us in the support areas, we’re able to assist students in cutting through some of those challenges, especially during that first year.”

Data and research strategies

In addition to the counseling and guidance, research data are being gathered.

“Each of the students we work with takes a questionnaire in terms of what they feel are challenges and struggles,” says Jones. “The researchers have gotten this information and now they’re going to write a report. “From that report we’re going to be able to build intervention strategies at each of the four schools [the others are Davidson, Furman and Duke], which may look totally different because … we’re serving different kinds of populations,” she adds. “The grant [started in 2013 and recently extended another three years] has enabled us to reach more students who otherwise may have fallen between the cracks.” With a student body of approximately 38,000, each year Cal State Fullerton admits about 4,500 freshmen and around 4,500 transfer students. Ninety-eight percent of those students are commuters. It has long been a Hispanic-serving institution as well as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution. When Dr. Mildred Garcia became president three years ago, she developed a strategic plan that would increase student satisfaction and improve graduation rates.

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“We are trying to make sure that we handle the retention and graduation challenges in ways that are contextually relevant to our institutional challenges,” Pendakur says. “We look at systems that produce risk rather than the students who are at risk. As a result we are able to effect enterprisewide solutions that have really helped us move the needle on graduation rates.”

Connecting the dots

Cal State Fullerton established student success centers—a joint effort by academic and student affairs—to increase graduation rates, improve student learning and narrow the achievement gap. Students can go to a student success center specific for the academic college in which they’re enrolled for centralized learning support services, including tutoring and academic advising. The university has invested in hiring professional academic advisers, instead of leaving that to faculty, who now focus on major-specific advising.

Each academic college has a five-person-minimum student success team. Each college can add additional members to suit its specific and strategic needs, which most have done. The team includes a student retention specialist who focuses on the first half of college—completing the first 60 credits—and a graduation specialist who works with students that have between 61 and 120 credits, the amount needed to graduate. Also on the student success team is a college career specialist, who works to engage students in career planning and engagement from the first year on campus. “Students who get engaged with their careers early in their college experience persist through to graduation at a greater rate because they have a sense of purpose,”

Pendakur says. Technological tools are used by both advisers and faculty, who receive data about at-risk students. Students are increasingly using mobile technology to help with degree planning. Cal State Fullerton has also worked to make high-impact practices an integral part of the student experience, restructuring general education curriculum to do so. High-impact practices would include engaging students in faculty research, writing-intensive courses and service learning. “What we’re trying to do is embed high-impact practices in the core curriculum,” Pendakur says. “We want to use them as a powerful lever in driving four-, five- and six-year graduation rates.”

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