Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Early Detection: Colleges Prioritize Addressing Academic and Financial Deficiencies among Freshmen at the Outset to Improve Graduation and Retention Rates

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Early Detection: Colleges Prioritize Addressing Academic and Financial Deficiencies among Freshmen at the Outset to Improve Graduation and Retention Rates

Article excerpt

BALTIMORE -- When Coppin State University officials told a group of incoming freshmen they had to attend a six-week summer pre-college program before enrolling this fall, the idea of more school was the last thing on some students' minds.

"I had no intention of going," to the mandatory orientation, says Devin McKeiver, a 21-year-old freshman. He grew up near the college, had already lined up a summer job and didn't like the idea of having to leave home.

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Indeed, the Summer Academic Success Academy (SASA) was no party. The academy required the 184 students identified as needing re medial work to wake by 7 a.m. and sustain themselves each day through classes, tutoring and study hall, with some recreation and cultural events mixed in, until 10 p.m. The prize for the survivors: a better chance of making it in college, earning a degree and getting employment.

"It was amazing, a good jump-start for me," says freshman Jetta Coleman, 21, of Las Vegas. "Just getting used to campus life. You have (those) six weeks to be on your own and be responsible for yourself."

In retrospect, says McKeiver, SASA gave him a head start on college. He says the academy helped him pass remedial English and math classes after he tested poorly on placement exams.

While Coppin State has offered summer bridge programs for years as an optional tool for students seeking a leg up, this year was the first time the administration mandated attendance for remedial students. Coppin State's new initiative, an effort to improve its 20 percent graduation rate, contributes to a growing national trend among colleges to boost their retention and graduation efforts. They are acting on research that shows students have a greater likelihood of staying in school and graduating if deficiencies--academic and financial--are addressed early and vigorously. The efforts are at various schools but especially at those with low graduation rates and those that have traditionally focused on low-income, first-time college students with academic achievement deficiencies dating to high school or earlier.

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"College is not the 13th grade," says Dr. Reginald Ross, Coppin State's vice president for enrollment management, sounding an assessment offered by many interviewed. Ross says the summer academy "is rigorous," but it "prepares students for the rigors of a college education. Cost is really a minimal issue if we retain our students."

In a bold step, Coppin, which covered the $3,500-per-student cost for tuition and on-campus room and board for SASA, plans to make the bridge academy a requirement for all incoming freshmen--more than 500 students--next summer, Ross says.

Investing in Success

The moves by Coppin and others come at a time when donors and politicians are demanding more bang for the shrinking amount of dollars they steer toward higher education. According to the College Board's review of data from the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development, the U.S. ranks 12th out of 36 nations in terms of postsecondary attainment among citizens 25 to 34 years old. "For this key demographic group, Canada, Korea, the Russian Federation, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Israel, France, Belgium and Australia have managed to leap ahead of the United States, while Denmark and Sweden are close to parity with the United States," reads the College Board website. Completion is the mantra since President Barack Obama challenged higher education by setting an ambitious goals for 60 percent of U.S. adults to have some form of a college degree by 2020.

Schools are investing heavily in retention and graduation efforts, despite the sagging economy that is forcing hefty budget cuts in other areas of higher education. Their almost intrusive, but necessary efforts range from mandatory academic advising to providing extra help overcoming financial aid problems that prevent students from persisting to early career counseling to keep students' eyes on the post-college employment prize. …

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