Eager to Jump on the Gravy Train, Campus Officials Wonder,
How Far Will New Retention Legislation Really Go?
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Though a federal proposal to create a new national retention program is still under debate, Dr. Audrey Kharem already has a good idea as to how Pennsylvania State University could spend the money if her campus were funded.
In Kharem’s view, federal matching funds should help the Penn State-University Park campus establish a summer transition program for rising low-income sophomore students.
“This could be a wonderful opportunity for our program,” Kharem says.
As director of Penn State’s Student Support Services program, Kharem would have significant say over setting the school’s priorities with regard to competing for and spending new funding from a Clinton administration budget proposal that would create the College Completion Challenge Grant program.
She says if she got her hands on some of the funds, she’d also like to expand the number of students who could participate in her campus’ program as well as line student pockets with money for textbooks.
But Kharem is joined by concerned observers and other student support personnel at campuses across the country who wonder: Will there be enough of a pie to divvy? How much ground will this new legislation really break? And will simply coming up with federal dollars in fact get to the root of why so many of higher education’s susceptible students don’t return to complete their degrees?
The federal proposal stipulates that only campuses with student support programs are eligible to participate in the grant program. Campuses with retention programs that specifically serve low-income students would also be eligible to compete for the funding.
Fierce competition for challenge grants is to be expected, given that only 70 of the more than 800 student-service programs at college and university campuses across the country would receive funding during the program’s first year.
Typically, the programs provide services such as tutoring, help with course selection, financial aid and career counseling to students who come from low-income families or are first-generation college attendees.
Student Support Services, authorized in the Higher Education Act of 1965 as a federal TRIO program, serve as the basis for retention and counseling initiatives that are widely used throughout higher education.
The programs are said to have a credible enough track record in retention to serve as the base for a new national program.
“It makes sense to link the initiative with TRIO programs. Since the federal government has this network [in Student Support Services], it makes sense to build on that rather than trying to start another program from scratch,” says Dr. Jeffrey Milem, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Education.
Federal officials and congressional advocates, such as U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., characterize the College Completion Challenge Grant proposal as one that will lead to innovation in retention programs. One administration official has called the proposal a “demonstration project.”
But many onlookers remain cautiously optimistic about the program’s ability to penetrate retention’s deeper roots.
Federal Funds or Federal Research?
Although the new administration proposal focuses on beefing up funds, experts say new federal experimentation is sorely needed in the retention field.
“We need more research in understanding what increases college completion rates among students,” says Milem.
The way Dr. Ronald McFadden sees it, a pre-freshman summer transition program for students who have traditionally enrolled in Student Support Services at the University of Tennessee would help many of them avoid academic trouble.
As director of the program at the Knoxville, Tenn., campus, McFadden says Student Support Services enrollment usually starts at around 200 at the beginning of the academic year and swells to 300 by the second semester.
“Many of our students don’t come until they get into trouble,” McFadden says.
He explains that many eligible students fail to enroll in the program at the beginning of their freshman year because they don’t want the stigma of being associated with the developmental program. McFadden says a summer program would attract pre-freshmen who might normally shy away from enrolling in student services at the beginning of the semester.
“During the summer, these students have yet to meet the people who will be their classmates,” McFadden says. “I think that’s the best time to get them into a program.”
McFadden and Penn State’s Kharem are among a cohort of program administrators who see a critical need for summer programs targeted at the students who normally enroll in student services.
In fact, Fattah’s legislation designates summer transition programs as a key priority.
Some officials, however, want to see more discussion about other ideas coming out of retention proposal debates. Their concern is that too much funding could be concentrated on a narrow range of retention activity.
Dr. John Gardner, director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College at Brevard College in North Carolina, says the Fattah legislation does not go far enough in specifying areas for intervention.
“I think the focus is very limited,” he says, referring to the language on summer programs and initiatives already covered in existing programs.
“[The legislation] omits many of the most important interventions we’ve seen in retention,” Gardner says. He adds the legislation fails to mention career planning assistance, student and faculty research pairings, first-year seminars and supplemental instruction for courses with high failure rates.
“I would hope that enabling regulations would go beyond what the Fattah legislation is proposing,” Gardner says.
Gardner, who is the nation’s leading proponent of First Year Experience orientation programs, says university-wide retention programs, like First Year seminars, have evolved out of the Student Support Services program models.
He adds that 71 percent of all higher education institutions with undergraduate populations offer first-year seminars or courses for their students.
“There’s been an effort to mainstream programs from TRIO. I would say that of those among us who have cared to look and listen, there’s been a lot of experimentation and innovation to come out of programs such as Student Support Services,” Gardner says.
He adds that the federal government could very well stimulate a new round of innovation if it implements a well-designed retention program.
A Dean’s Perspective
Dr. Joseph Silver, dean of academic affairs at Savannah State University, welcomes federal efforts to establish a new retention program. However, he cautions policymakers to consult closely with Student Support Services administrators to design a program that results in improved and unique initiatives.
“I want to see [federal officials] work closely with those who are on the front lines,” Silver says, adding that there’s considerable potential for unnecessary duplication of programs at schools. “Those Student Support Services personnel should be part of the conversation.”
At Savannah State, Silver says that retention rates of student support enrollees have been equal to or higher than the university’s overall retention rate. He adds that the program’s retention practices have been adopted into the school’s study skills counseling offered to all Savannah State students.
“I don’t think any university is where it should be,” with regard to overall student retention rates, Silver says.
The fact that historically Black schools have higher numbers of students on financial aid than majority White schools represents a significant factor explaining why Black colleges often have low retention rates, observers say.
Silver says that more than 90 percent of Savannah State students receive some form of financial aid. Research has shown that providing additional aid to students in their first two years of college could lower the number of dropouts among low-income students up to 23 percent, according to the U.S. Government Accounting Office.
Penn State’s Kharem says she would like to see some of the proposed funding go to help students cut down on expenses.
“A student might spend $300 or more on textbooks during a semester,” she says, adding that the needs of student-support students far surpass the funding allocated to her campus, which is predominantly White.
Her campus’ program serves 180 students annually — from freshmen to seniors — while 1,700 freshman enroll at Penn State each year who would be eligible to participate, Kharem says.
She is optimistic that the Penn State administration would provide a base of funds that could be matched by the new federal program.
“The administration has become familiar with the needs we address in Student Support Services,” she says, noting that support services at Penn State-University Park has been around since 1993.
Nationwide, student support programs in 1999 received average annual awards of $224,770. Program sizes ranged from 100 to 400 students.
Nevertheless, college and university officials say they would be eager to apply for the funding to expand their existing retention offerings and create new ones.
“We need the funding. We could use it,” says Dr.? Elizabeth Wood, director of Student Support Services at historically Black Tuskegee University in Alabama.
That thought is echoed across the nation.
Because, as Dr. Linda Serra Hagedorn, assistant professor and senior research associate at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, puts it: “Retention is a problem everywhere,” and demands federal attention. “The numbers speak for themselves,” she says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com