Higher Education Should Reverse Structural Racism

Our institution, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, has made enormous progress on the crisis in student success. In the 1980s, UMBC had a six-year graduation rate for all freshmen of just more than 30 percent, and for Black freshmen, the rate was 10 percentage points lower. Through a range of interventions, we have increased our six-year graduation rate to 70 percent overall, not including the 10 percent who transfer and graduate elsewhere. Moreover, we have no Black-white graduation gap.

Thirty years ago, the university administration (including one of the authors of this piece, Freeman Hrabowski) and faculty began thinking strategically about student success. The institution developed a program to support talented Black undergraduates in the natural sciences and engineering. Based on that program’s outcomes, the university also developed similar strategies for improving learning outcomes for students of all races, across fields. In 2005, UMBC established an office of undergraduate education led by a new dean of undergraduate education. Over the next decade, OUE implemented new programming for first-year students to increase retention, including a summer bridge program, a new-student book experience, short courses on how to navigate college, writing instruction, first-year seminars, and other support programs for transfer students. These provide students with a sense of belonging, agency, and efficacy, along with tools they need to be successful.

On a parallel track, beginning in 2003, the university created a “data warehouse” that pulled together information from across the institution—including students’ grades, courses, extracurriculars, and demographics—to provide a comprehensive view of the student experience. This database allows leadership, staff, and faculty to examine the efficacy of and to reshape programs to meet student needs. It also lends insights on how and when to help individual students. Our academic advocates work proactively with at-risk students to ensure their success—as defined by grades, persistence, and completion—by connecting them with resources such as tutoring and counseling.

In the past decade, faculty have also focused on course redesign to improve teaching and learning. Redesigned introductory courses that emphasize active, problem-focused, and group-based work support student learning and success in classes that have traditionally been taught across the country as “weed-out courses.” The co-curricular programming offered to students—residential learning communities, experiential learning, and a career center that helps students with internships and jobs—also enhances the student experience and reinforces persistence.

Of course, a major issue for students is money. Financial aid plays a role in where students go to college, whether they persist, and the quality of the education they get. This is in part a state- and federal-policy problem. Pell Grants have not kept pace with inflation, much less increases in tuition and fees, as per-student state appropriations for higher education in constant dollars have declined. It is also an institutional problem. We must do a better job of communicating net cost to students so they make informed choices; we must support students so they can immerse themselves in their studies instead of splitting time between work and school. Lately, at UMBC, we are finding creative ways to support students who dropped out very close to finishing their degree. With financial assistance and online coursework, many of these students are able to return and complete their degrees.

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