Recently, two professors of education received a grant for an unusual and much needed purpose. “We’re gathering good data on what is going right with colleges and universities dedicated to serving Black, Hispanic and Native American students,” said Dr. Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania. She and Dr. Clifton Conrad of the University of Wisconsin received a $1.5 million grant to document, publicize and support “Models of Success” at nine minority serving institutions.
“If we get away from stereotypes and look at the data on the actual value added through teaching, then many MSIs actually outperform White colleges and universities,” said Conrad. “When you control for factors such as high school grades, test scores and family background, it becomes clear that some MSIs are producing better outcomes for these students than other institutions. The goal of the grant is to identify those successes and best practices, document them with good data and then actively promote and publicize them as widely as possible.”
The project includes $50,000 grants to each of the participating colleges to help them improve their ability to analyze and document their successes. “We widely advertised that we were looking for models of success at MSIs and received over 60 applications,” said Gasman. “We found innovations and improvements that were not being reflected in statistics such as the six-year graduation rates, which is a poor measure for schools that have large numbers of transfer students and people who drop in and out.”
The finalists included three HBCUs: Morehouse, Norfolk State University and Paul Quinn College; three Hispanic-serving institutions: El Paso Community College, San Diego City College and La Sierra University; and three tribal colleges: Salish Kootenai College, Chief Dull Knife College and the College of the Menominee Nation.
Many of the programs focused on ways of retaining students until graduation with particular emphasis on helping minority students take and persevere in math and science classes. For example, between 1997 and 2003, enrollment in remedial mathematics courses at Chief Dull Knife College in Montana averaged 45 students per semester with a completion rate of only 46 percent. College-level math classes averaged 13 students with a completion rate of 61 percent.
In response, CDKC implemented a computer-assisted approach to remedial education. Rather than using traditional lecture-based courses, where absences would inhibit their progress, students were allowed to progress at their own pace. Other innovations included hiring more full-time math instructors, rejecting letter grades in favor of a pass/fail skills mastery system, giving more credits for remedial courses and tracking student progress more closely.
Over the next six years the number of students in pre-college mathematics courses increased more than 300 percent, with an average completion rate of 66 percent. Enrollment in college-level math increased 400 percent, with an average completion rate of 72 percent.
In addition to its unusual goal, the grant-making process itself was groundbreaking because the funds came from three different organizations: the Lumina Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and USA Funds. “We all share a major priority of learning how to increase the retention rate of minority students, if only because they’re becoming a larger portion of the college population,” said Bob Ballard, senior vice president for access and outreach at USA Funds.
“Usually when a project gets funding from several sources, there are many issues of how to coordinate things after the money arrives. This time we decided it would be a lot more efficient to collaborate from the very beginning,” Ballard added.
USA Fund senior program officer Patricia Roe added, “It’s hard to overestimate the importance of retention for both the individual student and our society. There is a huge difference between having some college credits and earning an A.A. or B.A. Students who complete degrees have vastly greater career prospects and are much less likely to default on their loans.”