For decades, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have taken on the task of educating a disproportionate number of low-income and first-generation students. Recent data show that approximately 9 percent of low-income students graduate from college, so colleges struggle to raise completion rates for that population.
Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a professor in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, asserts that “any institution that has that population … is going to have a more difficult time with graduation rates and retention,” in part, because “the main predictor in terms of graduation and retention is income.”
Even still, many HBCUs are rising to the challenge. Xavier University of Louisiana, specifically, recently finished a promising four-year test period of its “Out the Door in 4” program, which guides students to graduation in four to five years.
The First Year
Out the Door in 4 started with 24 student volunteers: two were men and a third had to take remedial math courses. Dr. Pamela Franco and Pearl Algere-Lonian, co-directors of the program, recruited freshmen, and each student signed a contract, committing themselves to the goals of the program.
Dr. Loren Blanchard, senior vice president for academic affairs at Xavier, says the program is centered around an “idea about a commitment made on the front end, at the very beginning, and stating that we are committing together … . It’s not only the terms of the fundamentals of this program that work; it’s also the psychology of it,” he says.
Xavier is not alone in recognizing the importance of freshman year.
Dillard University, a mere six miles away from Xavier, requires all freshmen to participate in classes and mentoring at the Center for the First-Year Experience.
“I understand that college life for the students we are educating today comes with a different set of expectations and pressures. We help students to navigate these unfamiliar areas,” says Dr. Nia Haydel, director of the Center.
Out the Door in 4 doesn’t stop after freshman year. Students receive extra support from faculty and staff until they graduate.
Part of the Community
Franco wants students to have the “total college experience” and to “really bond together with individuals who share similar goals.” Their students bond during monthly workshops, cultural trips into the New Orleans area and during off-campus dinners. The group even has matching T-shirts. They created a tight-knit community while boosting their social capital.
“If you have a certain amount of social or cultural capital, you are much more likely to be retained and graduate,” says Gasman. Social capital includes the soft skills that are necessary for success, but are not usually taught in class.
“There’s a certain kind of shame in asking for help,” adds Gasman as an example. But students with high social capital, he says, are “more likely to ask … because [they] know it’s acceptable.”
Gasman found that students at HBCUs often learn soft skills from their peers or faculty members informally, but some schools do have formal programs. Norfolk State’s summer bridge program allows incoming freshmen to acclimate to college life without the stress of a full course load. Morehouse College also develops capital with a peer-to-peer mentoring program in the math and sciences. Out the Door in 4 differs in that students build a community around the explicit goal of graduating on time.
Set Up for Success
Program leaders provided a road map to a degree for students, which Complete College America says is crucial to improving graduate rates. At any point, students could articulate exactly where they were in their degree program and what they needed to do in order to finish.
“It became second nature to our group of students,” says Algere-Lonian.
“It’s all based on commitment,” Blanchard says of the program. “It’s finishing in four years in such a way that you are ready to move into graduate school or the workforce.”
Of the 24 students who started the program in 2009, seven already graduated and an additional five already started Xavier’s doctoral pharmacy program. The six remaining participants plan to graduate within the next year. The program’s projected 70 percent graduation rate is much higher than the university-wide five-year graduation rate of 43 percent.
Several participants also assumed campus leadership roles.
“I believe wholeheartedly … [the program] gave them a sense of confidence to be able to go into those leadership roles,” says Blanchard. The Student Government Association president and the reigning Miss Xavier were among the program participants who graduated this year. Looking forward, Xavier officials confirm that the program will continue and that they aspire to double its size soon.