Colleges look to USC for ways to boost graduation rates
With a mission to improve college graduation rates among minority students on a national level, the USC Center for Urban Education (CUE) was retained by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) for a two-year, $1 million project to uncover the pitfalls that may drive students to drop out.
The 14 PASSHE universities join a slate of national higher education institutions that have partnered with CUE to improve graduation rates among their minority student populations, including the University of Wisconsin system’s campuses, Nevada’s higher education system and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, among others.
“Even with 50 years of civil rights legislation in place, the gains we have made in higher education have been far less than one would expect,” said Estela M. Bensimon, CUE co-director and professor of higher education at the USC Rossier School of Education.
USC’s work echoes the pledge of President Barack Obama’s administration to make the United States the world leader in college attainment by 2020.
In the increasingly competitive American workforce, a college degree is more important than ever.
“It’s about equity,” said Linda Wong, the center’s executive director. “Having more college-educated workers is so critical to the economic well-being of the country.”
CUE’s collaboration with PASSHE – called the Equity Scorecard project – will focus on incorporating student graduation rates among black, Latino and other underrepresented students into their current accountability systems that reward improvement on its campuses.
“Ensuring access and success for all qualified students is not just a national agenda – it’s the right thing to do,” said Kathleen Howley, PASSHE senior associate vice chancellor of academic and student affairs.
The USC researchers employ a mix of number-crunching and on-the-ground work with faculty, administrators and staff who interview students and others to uncover the barriers that make earning a degree especially challenging.
The results of CUE’s work are chronicled in its Equity Scorecard™, a summary report card that captures the results of the team inquiries and the actions a college will take to meet its graduation goals.
For example, an analysis of several California community college campuses found systemic barriers that made staying on track for graduation particularly difficult. Among them: lack of coordination between admissions and advisement and not giving students information about well-established campus resources in course syllabi.
Some changes were simple to identify but had a big impact: updating campus websites to eliminate outdated information, broken links or nonfunctioning phone numbers for key departments and staff.
And in June, the University of Wisconsin system made significant policy changes – including overhauling accountability reports to provide student outcomes disaggregated by race and ethnicity – to promote better transfer and graduation rates after completing a two-year study with USC.
While most initiatives on improving college completion focus on top-down approaches, CUE’s model engages faculty members as the problem solvers by creating teams comprised of the campus’ own faculty and administrators to investigate where students may be getting lost on the road to a college diploma.
“When administrators put themselves in their students’ shoes, they’re often seeing the gaps for the first time,” Bensimon said. “The student data helps us tell the larger story, but talking to students and faculty is essential to discovering the solutions that will make a difference for students.”