The issues, however, are common to many institutions but can be addressed with the appropriate resources, resolve, and dedicated faculty and staff. It is very important to have an assessment component to all of the initiatives that may be implemented to address the challenges that first-generation students face. There are several questions/recommendations that I offer to help those with the authority to turn the low graduation rates around:
1. Has your institution adopted a mandatory first-year experience program for all entering freshmen? If not, why not consider this initiative. Based on the research literature, a viable program can be a good starting point, especially for those first-generation students who need an extra academic and cultural boost to adjust to the academic demands of college. If you do have a program, are you tracking the students who participate? Do you have a formative and summative assessment program to make needed changes, improvements, etc. that will boost established benchmarks for improving retention rates?
2. Does your institution have an intrusive advising program? Many of the successful programs that serve first-generation students have implemented such a program and have found them to be very successful in assisting students with appropriate course selection, early intervention before a student is too far gone with those “killer” courses that prevent successful degree progression and completion. If you have such a program, what assessment and evaluating mechanisms are in place to ensure effectiveness? Again, formative and summative structures should be in place to assist with program improvement.
3. Does your faculty have buy-in? By this I mean do they communicate and collaborate with academic support and student affairs offices to assist in the retention of students? If not, why not? Faculty play an integral part in a student’s academic experience; the research literature for decades has demonstrated this to be the case. They, the faculty, are not the only people that can positively affect the educational success of students. The literature has also demonstrated the importance of student affairs and academic support staff in positively shaping the educational experiences of students. Do faculty in the ‘killer courses’ for example, mandate within their curriculum that students visit the learning resource or tutoring services offered on campus? If not, why not? In order for students to be successful, the academic and social experiences must be synergistic in nature.
4. If the survey data indicate that students are having negative or less than pleasant experiences with noninstructional staff (e.g., financial aid, bursar, registrar), what kinds of workshops are being offered to instill in staff the importance of ‘good’ customer service? Students are customers, and sometimes employees in higher education institutions sometimes forget this fact. Do staff in these key offices have low morale? Do they feel underappreciated? Do they feel overworked? Sometimes issues such as the aforementioned affect how staff treat the institution’s ‘customers.’
Hope some of the above issues are ones that will be considered as the institution moves forward with planning for the upcoming academic year. Again, these are issues that many HBCUs should address, especially as performance-based budgeting grows in implementation.
Dr. Jerald L. Henderson is a higher education consultant.
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