Finding Common Purpose
Raising College Graduation Rates: A Conversation with Dana Dunn of UNCG
For the past several posts, I’ve been exploring one particular span of the pathway to lifelong success: the transition from high school to college or some other post-secondary education/training and on the way to a good-paying job. In my last two, I had a discussion with Patrick Rametti, director of college completion at Uncommon Schools, an organization that manages 54 nonprofit, charter public schools for low-income students. He talked about Uncommon’s compelling approach not only to ensure its students are prepared when they graduate from high school, but to make sure they stay in college by providing some post-secondary counseling and other services.
At the same time, Patrick shared his belief that this kind of support should be the responsibility of colleges themselves, with which I could not agree more. Today, nearly a third of students who enter college still haven’t earned a degree after six years, and for students from families in the lowest income quartile it’s even worse—only 11%. To get a view of the post-secondary handoff, I had a conversation with Dana Dunn, provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro; I had heard she launched an interesting program to address the hand off challenge.
Let’s stipulate before getting into the conversation that it is predicated on the research that shows a post-secondary degree is pretty much essential for getting a good-paying job in today’s economy—regardless of whether that ought to be the case. And further, let’s stipulate that graduation rates, therefore, need to be raised from their low levels.
I began by asking Dana about why she thinks graduation rates are so low in general. She mentioned a number of factors: “challenges in the form of needing to work perhaps excessive hours that are incompatible with going to school, and other kinds of stressors associated with a lower-income lifestyle.”
Having to work while also attending college is a particularly daunting challenge. From my perspective, it is linked to a more general inability in the United States for many people just to meet their basic needs. I asked Dana how she thinks a lack of transportation, a lack of childcare, and other essential things some people have and some people just don’t become core barriers to success at moving through school.
“These are absolutely barriers for those who are low-income. First and foremost, we have to meet our basic human needs—and sometimes it is such a challenge. All of one’s energy, capacity, and resources have to go into doing that, and that’s simply not compatible with finding time to pursue a rigorous study at a university.” Even if there are institutions nearby in someone’s community, “If you don’t have transportation or perhaps can’t afford public transportation because of income challenges, it’s obviously hard to do well in a class you can’t even physically transport yourself to. These are some of the first and most basic obstacles to success.”
Dana’s point about basic needs cannot be ignored.
Researchers have found tremendously high levels of basic needs insecurity among students on two- and four-year campuses—upwards of 45% experiencing food security, 56% housing insecurity, and 17% actually homeless at some point—with significant ramifications for students’ persistence in their studies and their graduation rates.
This has sparked the ECMC Foundation to establish the Basic Needs Initiative aimed at developing and sharing scalable practices to address what is clearly a crisis.
Dana went on to mention that the degree of academic preparation, in some cases, is not the same for students from those lower-income backgrounds.” Academic preparation is a primary focus of the Uncommon Schools approach to ensuring post-secondary success as well as helping make sure students don’t lose their financial aid—another reason many students fail to graduate college.
Besides barriers such as work, transportation, and academic preparation, Dana also talked about the challenge of just being in college for the first time—which can be true for almost anyone, but can be unique for those with fewer networks or resources. “Those from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have family members and friends and others for whom the university experience is something familiar. It may be something, in fact, quite alien. Learning how to navigate that and how to thrive in such an environment is not something that’s automatic. It takes a lot of support and guidance for students to be able to thrive in an environment that they had far less exposure to.”
With all these obstacles in mind, I wanted to know what UNCG is doing to make success more likely, especially given its status as “a minority serving-institution, meaning approximately half of our students are non-white, approximately half of our students are white.” UNCG is perhaps the most diverse institution in the University of North Carolina system. Well over half the students are Pell-eligible, and a large number of them are first-generation college students.
“We have many members of previously underserved groups that are part of our student body,” Dana explained. “Our current graduation rates for the student body as a whole, for four-year graduation rates, run a couple of percentage points higher than the national average, depending on what year you start with. Our six-year graduation rates are markedly higher. It takes students who are working a lot longer to complete a degree, and those jump into the 50s, approaching the mid-50s, and again tend to run a few percentage points higher than the national average.”
That’s promising but, as Dana put it, “certainly not high enough. We’re working ambitiously to improve that, but it’s still an indication that we’re doing something right here when you consider the profile of our students.”
Last year, under Dana’s leadership, UNCG launched The Academic Success Coaching program to get those numbers up. It’s getting a lot of recognition. I asked her to talk about the program, and she began with “just a little bit of history.”
“Because of the students we serve,” she explained, “we participate in many federally funded educational support programs. They’re often referred to as the TRIO Programs and support tutoring and supplemental instruction and other things for students from low-income backgrounds. But even with the funds to support those programs, we realized some years ago that we lacked sufficient resources to reach first-year students in a targeted way. We lacked the resources to work intensively with them to teach them how to navigate the university, how to connect with the many support resources available to them.”
Dana looked beyond the university for help, and received assistance from two Greensboro-area foundations: the Edwin M. Armfield Sr. Foundation provided generous support to launch the program, and the Cemala Foundation provided additional funds so the program could reach a larger number of students.
“We have academic success coaches work intensively with students for their first year—one year only—with the intent of building in them the skillset they need so they can maintain the behaviors and activities associated with success throughout the remainder of their time at the institution.” Each year, the resources will be rolled over to the next incoming group of students.
The coaches—who come from UNCG’s ranks of graduate students in programs such as counseling, psychology, and education—receive specialized, rigorous training the summer before coaching and a certification that is a credential of value for them after they finish school.
“So while they are pursuing their own graduate study, their part-time employment is as an executive coach for these first-year students.” They receive a stipend comparable to what a graduate research or teaching assistant would get, and the credential
The program works on a caseload model. Coaches have a number of “coachees” with whom they meet periodically to cover a somewhat programmed course of topics, with time built in for personalization for the students. “Part of what the coaches are doing is helping build this sense of belonging that is so important for students, who get a mentor, someone who can help connect them to resources on campus like the writing center, the math clinic, digital media studio, tutoring, supplemental instruction. There’s a vast web of support here, but it’s complicated if you don’t know how to navigate it, and the coaches are there to assist the students in doing so. If they have challenges, if they get off track, the one-on-one interpersonal dialogue can be very valuable in motivating students, helping them realize they’re not alone in having challenges, and then sharing best-practice advice for them in terms of how to succeed at the university.”
Academic success coaching at UNCG is not only about academics, though. Sometimes coaches connect students to mental health counseling. And they address student needs in general. “If you don’t have your most basic needs met,” Dana reiterated, “then there’s no way you can be academically successful. We call it academic success coaching because we believe these things, too, are critical conditions necessary for academic success.”
Going forward, Dana hopes to make the UNCG program, which currently serves only a few hundred students, available to all incoming students. That will take getting access to some more financial resources.
Even though academic success coaching is in its early stages at UNCG, the program sounds spot on to me. By using grad students as coaches and providing them a stipend, the program not only becomes scalable but also gets woven into the fabric of the institution. I see that latter point as particularly important, because colleges and universities really need to step up and take responsibility for increasing their graduation rates—and using resources this way helps make that more doable.
Getting college graduation rates up has to be a societal effort as well. “I very much believe,” Dana stated, “it’s in society’s best interest over the long run because if these students graduate, they’re going to have successful lives as informed and contributive citizens, they’re going to drive economic development in their communities, and the world is going to be a better place. Take that investment on the front end to reap the benefits down the road.”
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