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Graduating Low-Income Students

President Obama’s recent speech at the University of Texas at Austin stressed the need to boost college graduate rates. One aspect of the challenge is making sure that low-income students feel comfortable and are successful on campuses that are often dominated by students from wealthy backgrounds. At Washington University in St. Louis and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill innovative programs have been put in place that could serve as models for higher education across the country.

According to a recent article by Kristen Hare in the St. Louis Beacon, two students at Wash U have started a new organization, United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity, or “U/FUSED.” Chapters have since spread to St. Louis University and Duke. The founders, Fernando Cutz and Chase Sackett, were scholarship students who recently graduated and felt that the issue of socioeconomic diversity was ignored on campus. “There was awareness about ethnicity, awareness about race and gender, but people’s economic backgrounds weren’t getting much attention,” Hare writes.

Cutz and Sackett have pushed for increasing economic diversity at Wash U (where the percentage of federal Pell grant recipients is below 10 percent) but also have sought to make sure that once students arrive on campus they have a strong support system to remain and succeed in finding jobs. This is at least as important as getting students in the door, Chandra Taylor Smith, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, told Hare. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Pell Institute Advisory Board.) At Wash U, the Cornerstone program uses federal TRIO money to provides mentors, academic assistance, and cultural programs to first-generation college students, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities. Cutz is pushing to expand the program’s offerings.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, meanwhile, an extensive support program was put in place in 2004 as part of the Carolina Covenant program. As outlined in a recent Century Foundation report written by former New York Times education editor Edward B. Fiske, the Carolina Covenant provides low-income student not only generous grant funding to enable students to graduate debt-free but also significant academic support. The brainchild of Shirley Ort, director of student aid, and former chancellor James Moeser, the Covenant provides faculty and staff mentoring of first-year students; peer mentoring by experienced Covenant Scholars; special development opportunities such as etiquette dinners and career workshops; and social events for Covenant Scholars. Faculty support has been strong: In the first year, more than 80 offered to serve as mentors, even though only 15 were needed.

Fiske finds that the preliminary outcomes of the financial-aid and support programs are quite positive. In the past, low-income students at Chapel Hill dropped out at almost four times the rate of wealthy students, but now outcomes are improving. Compared with a control group (students entering in 2003 who would have been eligible to be Covenant Scholars had the program existed), Covenant Scholars entering in 2004 were 24 percent less likely to take a term off and 17 percent less likely to become academically ineligible. Most importantly, 61.9 percent of the 2004 Covenant Scholars graduated within eight semesters, compared with 56.7 percent of the 2003 control group, a 5.2 percentage point increase. Put differently, eight-semester graduation rates increased 9.2 percent.

Raising the graduation rate nationally will require many different tools and substantial resources. But for those interested in taking on President Obama’s challenge, Wash U and UNC have some interesting lessons to offer.

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