Making the Grade at San Diego State

For Ismael Reveles, college was at times almost impossible. Despite the fact that he entered San Diego State University with a high school GPA above 3.5 and a strong desire to succeed, economic forces caused him to consider dropping out.

“I became the sole provider in my house at one point,” Reveles recalls. “What topped it off, I am the eldest of six siblings.” And the 23-year-old says his situation was not unique. “Unfortunately, some of us [students] have to work to support our families and our own needs. I was working almost full-time and taking 18 units.”

But before he became another dismal statistic—first-generation college student dropping out, student of color not graduating—Reveles reached out to the mentors and counselors provided by the university.

Reveles found out that support was available, including grants and tutoring, that enabled him to stop working, focus on his studies and graduate. He received his bachelor’s degree in May and begins graduate school in August at Arizona State University, where he will begin a Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on biomechanical robotics.

Reveles is an example of SDSU’s intensive efforts to improve its graduation and retention rates and to close the achievement gap. In 2007, as a freshman, he says he was part of a pilot project that preceded the current Early Start program by focusing on basic math and writing skills during the summer before freshman year.

Despite his relatively strong high school GPA, Reveles says he was selected for the program “because standardized tests are not my forte, so I had good grades but my test scores were not high.”

San Diego State has been lauded nationally for its success on this front. An article titled “Walking the Walk on Student Retention” by the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit that seeks to address achievement and opportunity disparities among students, stated: “The university not only collects and analyzes data, it uses it to identify at-risk populations, to develop and test the outcome of interventions and to measure progress in retention and graduation rates over time and for particular groups.”

It cited several of San Diego State’s successful initiatives, including mandatory orientation programs for all first-year and transfer students; special programs for low-income and first-generation students; a strong, ongoing collaboration with local middle and high schools; and an institutional focus on the quality of student learning.

Closing the Racial Gap

According to the university’s statistics, among freshmen who attended classes in 2010, 88.3 percent were enrolled again in fall 2011, a significant increase from the previous year when 82.3 percent of freshmen continued to their second year. SDSU’s current six-year graduation rate is 65.7 percent.

Dr. Geoffrey Chase, dean of undergraduate studies, also notes that the racial gap in retention has almost disappeared. For example, Chase says that in 2010 the freshman retention for students of color was 87.4 percent, less than one percent lower than the overall rate. In 1999, he says the freshman retention rate was 75 percent and 70 percent for students of color.

According to the Education Trust report, “These intentional, well-coordinated efforts are paying off.” It stated that, from 2002 to 2009, San Diego State raised its graduation rates from 38 percent to 66 percent. Between 2005 and 2009, it also reduced the gaps separating Black and Latino students from their peers by about 50 percent.

Like Reveles, Ellese Carmona, also 23, benefited from a variety of SDSU’s programs, particularly MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers), which is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. It prepares minority students for direct entry into Ph.D. programs after they receive a bachelor’s degree.

“The MARC program worked diligently to prepare me and my fellow MARC scholars to be the most well-rounded and experienced graduate school applicants for Ph.D. programs,” Carmona says. “[It] was crucial to my success in obtaining interviews and getting into graduate school.”

Carmona is headed to Harvard University to begin a Ph.D. program in biological and biomedical sciences. At SDSU, she was encouraged to apply for a summer research fellowship at Harvard, which she received. Reveles also was awarded a competitive summer fellowship at Cornell University.

“Without a doubt, I would not have accomplished … what I have done without the help of these programs,” Carmona says. “Being a first-generation college student, I had no idea what opportunities were out there for me or how I was supposed to go about accomplishing my career goals.”

Strong Support with High Expectations

SDSU President Elliot Hirshman credits a 10-year focus initiated under the previous president, Dr. Stephen L. Weber, with the remarkable turnaround. But Hirshman stresses that, for students in the support programs, it is a two-way street that at times can be bumpy.

“The university was really motivated by a core philosophy—an educational philosophy that involves strong support for students and also high expectations,” Hirshman explains. “We are expecting students to take certain steps to advance their academic programs, and we’re giving them specific information about how to do that. We set pathways, and we expect the students to follow them.”

For Carmona and Reveles, this meant applying for summer research opportunities.

For other students, it means studying abroad, even if they have to sacrifice job opportunities at home. Twenty-three out of 85 majors require students to study abroad, according to Chase, who echoes Hirshman’s emphasis on the high expectations that go along with SDSU’s comprehensive support system.

The Education Trust’s report notes that a subcommittee of faculty and administrators in the undergraduate studies division heads up the efforts to document and report the university’s retention performance and outcomes. It also commends the university for dedicating an entire office exclusively to the retention and success of at-risk students.

“These programs were crucial to my success and also necessary to meeting people that had similar interests …,” Carmona says. “I have made life-long connections through my involvement and also have become a competitive and competent research scientist, thanks to these programs.”

The College Board Study on Student Retention, which is the basis of the Education Trust’s report, points out that such improvements are not only beneficial to the students but also fiscally benefit institutions as “more and more states are tying funding for institutions to retention and graduation rates.”

Reveles says he has been inspired by his mentors who encouraged him to persevere despite the sometimes daunting challenges. And, as a senior, he, in turn, “paid it forward” by mentoring underclassmen. The Education Trust recommended that “all of our colleges and universities do as San Diego State has done: Stop talking about making student persistence a priority and just walk the walk.”