Colleges Share Strategies That Help Disadvantaged Students Succeed

By Katherine Mangans, Chronicle of Higher Education

April 24, 2014

Northbrook, Ill.

For one student, the difference was a financial-aid officer who took the time to draw him out about personal problems that were derailing his studies. For another, it was a cohort of classmates who urged him on when work, college, and family pressures collided.

The strategies that their small, private colleges took to help those low-income students succeed took center stage here on Wednesday at a three-day conference highlighting a group that isn’t used to being in the spotlight.

The four-year-old Yes We Must Coalition includes 36 colleges that joined forces to share ideas on how to raise graduation rates and make college affordable. All have 5,000 or fewer undergraduates, at least half of whom are eligible for Pell Grants. Most offer four-year degrees, but a few are two-year colleges.

The colleges, many of which were started with the mission of serving low-income and minority students, tend to be isolated, either geographically or in terms of their missions, from the rest of the higher-education establishment, said Gloria Nemerowicz, the group’s founder and president. Gaining clout is one of the coalition’s goals.

A White House summit on college access for low-income students in January featured many of the kinds of strategies the coalition’s colleges have employed for years with varying degrees of success. Ms. Nemerowicz, who was president of Pine Manor College, in Massachusetts, for 15 years, worries they’ve been overlooked.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on community colleges and large, public universities, and we could do so much more if this sector was at the table,” she said.

Financial Challenges

It’s a sector that faces serious financial hurdles. The share of students enrolling in four-year colleges after high school has been steadily sliding since 2001, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. That shift, from 68 percent in 2001 to 56 percent in 2012, poses formidable challenges for small, tuition-dependent colleges like the ones gathered here.

As higher-education costs have surged, the biggest drop in bachelor’s-degree enrollment has been among students from low-income families, who are increasingly concentrated in community colleges and for-profit institutions. In 2012 a student born into the top quartile of family income was about nine times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 as was a student born into the bottom quartile, the Pell Institute found.

One of the coalition’s goals, Ms. Nemerowicz said in an interview on Tuesday, is “to raise our visibility so students can find us.”

The conference’s keynote speaker, Vincent Tinto, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University and a leading expert on college completion, told the 140 attendees that colleges that have strong track records in educating disadvantaged students have a few things in common. Among them:

  • They encourage collaboration. First-year learning communities that link two or three courses allow students to study in cohorts on material that’s relevant to more than one class. “Students in groups do better than students on their own,” he said.
  • When students are struggling, counselors or teachers intervene early. “If you wait until the midterm, in many cases, they’ve already left the course,” he said.
  • They spend time on faculty development. Instructors are trained in the pedagogical techniques that are most effective with diverse students.

Success Stories

The strategies the colleges employ are as diverse as the colleges themselves.

A Finnish folklorist at Finlandia University, in Minnesota, described how she teaches new students the concept of Sisu, which roughly translates to grit. She takes the students to a copper mine where, for many of their ancestors, “going down two miles and chipping away at rocks was the American dream.”

An administrator at Union College in Kentucky explained how the college uses scavenger hunts and wilderness excursions to acclimate freshmen from rural Appalachia who are the first in their families to attend college.

At the end of the day, students took the stage to describe what had worked for them.

Michael D’Ambrosio, 30, who received a bachelor’s degree from Robert Morris University in Illinois in 2010, was the first in his family to attend college. He had no relatives to turn to for advice when he started taking night classes while working full time, and with an infant at home.

During his first semester, he was placed in a cohort of students enrolled in the same paralegal, mathematics, and English courses. “Seeing the same faces from quarter to quarter, studying with them, and knowing that they could all relate to what I was going through made a huge difference,” he said.

Spencer Richardson-Moore, 24, said that having a financial-aid officer at Marygrove College, in Michigan, who “looked beyond my smile and saw that something was wrong” helped him open up about personal problems that were hurting his grades and jeopardizing his financial aid.

He also credited a campus-based group called the Gentlemen’s Roundtable with helping him and other young black men realize their potential. “We were brought together as young men at risk,” he said. “We’re now a group of young men who are scholars.”

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