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Study in Higher Education Points to Success
UC Riverside graduates 64 percent of its students in six years, and it doesn’t matter whether they are rich or poor.
That fact is remarkable when compared to some other universities, where low-income students lag 20 percentage points behind their wealthier classmates. It is so remarkable that on June 6 USA Today published an opinion piece that points out UC Riverside’s success with students who qualify for federal Pell Grants.
“The knee-jerk explanation — that Riverside must succeed by limiting the number of poor and minority students admitted — is wrong. Riverside is very diverse, especially with Latino students, and 45 percent of its students receive federal Pell grants for poor students,” wrote opinion editor Richard Whitmire in USA Today. “The real answer emerges from a study recently released by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education: Riverside treats students differently. Incoming freshmen get yearlong orientation sessions that reach out to low-income students who are the first in their family to attend colleges. Those students get offered extra sessions by professors. A special campus center is devoted to encouraging minority students to take on math and science majors. In short, the university pays a whole lot of attention to solving the problem.”
The USA Today piece and a new report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education are music to the ears of Ellen Wartella, UCR’s executive vice chancellor.
“We have noticed this trend on our campus, but I can not tell you how proud I am that this independent agency is confirming and endorsing the work we have been doing here,” Wartella said. “We are committed to student success at UCR.”
The report, called “Demography is not Destiny: Increasing the Graduation Rates of Low-Income College Students at Large Public Universities,” reveals that student retention programs designed for low-income students can improve college graduation rates without narrowing access.
“The solution for higher student retention rates is not to raise admission standards,” says report co-author and Pell Institute Director Colleen O’Brien. “But to be successful at helping students graduate requires a commitment of resources, energy and leadership throughout the campus and a clear understanding of the students who are the targets of your efforts.”
That understanding of student needs is frequently absent, says O’Brien, who, with co-author Jennifer Engle, led the study of 14 public universities. When colleges and universities don’t understand the academic, financial, cultural and social barriers students face, they invest in retention without sufficient impact.
Moreover, many institutions don’t even know how their low-income students are faring because they only calculate overall retention rates.
“Demography is not Destiny” documents research conducted by the Pell Institute on public universities with relatively high numbers of federal Pell Grant recipients, an indicator of low-income students served.
Researchers predicted each institution’s graduation rates based on a number of factors, including the academic quality of the incoming students and the economic diversity of the student body. It turns out that some of the institutions were performing better than expected in terms of graduation rates, despite serving academically and demographically diverse student populations, while others were performing below expectations.