The possibilities of college success

Stony Brook University Commencement
Stony Brook University Commencement - John Griffin/Stony Brook University Office of Communications

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College success can definitely be nurtured in a student, says David Ferguson, Distinguished Service Professor of Technology and Society, as well as Applied Mathematics and Statistics, at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. He recalls an Hispanic high-school student named Marvin from Brentwood Union Free School District, 15 miles away. Seventy-five percent of Brentwood's 16,500 students are Hispanic, more than 70 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and more than a quarter are listed by the district as having limited English proficiency. 
Stony Brook didn't wait until Marvin walked through their front door for the first time to help him navigate his journey. Stony Brook urged Marvin to enroll in the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) funded by the New York State Department of Education while still in high school, then enter Collegiate STEP at Stony Brook. 
"I began to ask Marvin whether he was interested in graduate school," says Ferguson. "At first, he had no idea what graduate school was about." Marvin was encouraged to participate in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) run by the National Science Foundation. LSAMP tries to increase student completion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) bachelor's degrees, and to expand their interest in graduate programs. It offers NSF fellowships, health insurance, tuition and fees for the first two years of grad school, and boasts a graduation rate for participants of 80 percent at Stony Brook -- higher even than the campus average.
Ferguson also connected Marvin with Stony Brook's Material Sciences and Engineering Department, where he had undergraduate research opportunities. A semester and a half later he said yes to grad school. Today, Marvin has a Ph.D. in that department and works for a high-level government office involved in security; his job is so sensitive that Ferguson declined to name the agency.
"The Marvin story is repeated many times over," he notes. "Students who are encouraged to do course work are gradually moved into the research area. It's that gradual acculturation of students" to the possibilities of college attainment that's crucial, Ferguson says.

The need for success
According to the national Pathways to College Network, college success is only going to become more vital for U.S. students -- and is today most difficult to obtain for young people of color, those from low-income families, and students in first-generation American households. Just 52 percent of African American students and 56 percent of Hispanic students graduate on time from high school, while 78 percent of white students graduate on time. While only 47 percent of lower-income students entered college and 43 percent of those students graduated by eight years later, among higher-income families 85 percent entered college and 80 percent of those young people graduated on time. 
By 2018, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, we'll need 22 million new college grads, with 63 percent of jobs even requiring a graduate degree.
"If you're going to be competitive at the state and city level, you have to have college success," says Jennifer Engle, director of higher education research and policy for The Education Trust in Washington, D.C. In 2007, The Education Trust began the Access to Success program to support and study individual institutions' success in spurring college achievement among African Americans and Hispanics. So far, Access has concluded that:
  • Focusing on increasing attainment for everyone helps minority populations; 
  • Programs focused on minorities benefit all students; and
  • It doesn't matter how far down a university starts when trying to close graduation-rate gaps.
Top "gap closers" like Virginia Commonwealth University, Florida State University, the University of Southern California and Stony Brook make several important moves that The Education Trust considers key.

"There always needs to be a leader at the top levels who is pushing for the success and providing key resources," says Engle. Also critical is the use of data to learn which students are likely to get in academic trouble or who are headed toward failure already, so that the institution can intervene early, create strong programs for student support, and track progress toward graduation goals.
The Provost Emeritus at Florida State, Lawrence Abele, for instance, used his position to become a catalyst for convening people on campus to identify and remove roadblocks to student success, Engle says. His leadership group didn't neglect non-academic factors, such as parking access and other student transportation issues. Abele convened his key players every Friday to keep their efforts in motion throughout the year. 
Of course, Engle cautions, "public institutions find themselves in an arms race, playing the ranking game," which takes away resources from college success strategies, as has the decrease in state funding for public universities across the country. She hopes these states keep in mind that "investing in student success comes back to the university in additional tuition."
VCU, the Ed Trust also discovered, used its University College, begun in 2006, to great effect, offering a core curriculum and smaller class sizes. There, faculty members work together across disciplines to make sure critical thinking, writing and other learning skills are emphasized in all course content. The University College also has an advising center, a writing center, and provides tutoring services.
USC created a university-wide core curriculum program and an online advising database, letting advisors across majors see the same records for each student and provide complementary guidance. All students are asked to create four-year plans for advancement that are reviewed in the middle of their sophomore and junior years, helping each student estimate his or her time to graduation. At Texas Tech University, a critical mass of diverse students, as well as in faculty and administration, has been decisive, the Ed Trust found.
At Stony Brook, says David Ferguson, the communities they have created to support all students have worked especially to aid disadvantaged and underrepresented minorities.

"They are communities that empower and engage students," from summer bridge programs to tutorials, he says. "We have high graduation rates and students are highly successful. I think our next step is to look at particular undergraduate and graduate majors in which there are still low representations … and target particular areas -- to try to look at where the groups are in terms of enrollment and graduation rates to leverage the infrastructure we have built to impact those particular areas."
In cities, great expectations

At Success Boston, top officials from The Boston Foundation, Boston Public Schools, the University of Massachusetts-Boston,  and Partners HealthCare teamed to chair a study of how Boston Public students of the Class of 2000 fared seven years after graduation. They found that only 35 percent had earned associate's or bachelor's degrees. 
"Clearly the promise of college enrollment was not yielding the same results in post-secondary completion," says Nahir Torres, the Foundation's program officer in education. To change the city's college success story, Success Boston set ambitious goals: To increase by 50 percent the college six-year completion rate for the class of 2009, and to double the college six-year completion rate for the class of 2011.
After enrolling 300 Boston Public students in Success Boston, the program found that the critical elements for success were identical to those identified by The Education Trust: "Putting data at the center and making sure you have the right people at the table," Torres says. It also helps that Success assigns each participant a case manager who follows and helps the student complete the federal financial aid form, register for classes, and accomplish other essentials.
Eighty-five percent of Success Boston's 2009 participants re-enrolled in their four-year colleges for a second year, and 77 percent re-enrolled in their two-year colleges, compared to 82 and 67 percent, respectively, of all Boston students from 2008.
"We're also really focused on system change," says Torres. Success plans to better align high school curricula with college curricula in math and English; identify liaisons from 20 local universities to work on financial-aid issues with Boston students on their campuses, and develop common college financial aid award-letter inserts highlighting comparative end-costs of each institution; build the capacity of local youth-serving nonprofits to help with the pre-college transition; and seek out college-friendly employment for Success participants -- jobs that both work around classes and connect employment now to future careers. 
For cities competing for the Talent Dividend Network's $1 million prize for the greatest increase in college completion citywide -- Boston is among them, Torres notes -- she recommends "keeping data at the forefront, which has been a real principle of the Talent Dividend, and using that to advance the conversations locally, as well as the statewide engagement.
"When we have great ambitions for our city, it can be frustrating that system change is slow," she adds. "Keeping the broad focus of the community on that agenda is key … and embracing the tools of advocacy to push for system change."

Marty Levine is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. 

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