Bucking a national trend: USCA closes the graduation gap between African-American and white students

July 17, 2017

The Aiken Standard highlighted how the University of South Carolina Aiken is focused on ensuring students’ success. USC Aiken was recently recognized as a leading institution for bridging the graduation gap between African-American students and their Caucasian counterparts. Larry Wood wrote the story below, which appeared in the Aiken Standard July 17, 2017.

African-American students at USC Aiken are graduating at a slightly higher percentage rate than white students, reversing a national trend of a college graduation completion gap between black and white students.

“There’s no gap here,” said Dr. Lloyd Dawe, the director of Institutional Effectiveness, Research and Compliance at USCA. “That is the complete opposite of the national trend.”

Based on a weighted, three-year average from 2012 to 2014, African-American students at USCA had a graduation rate of 42.6 percent, which is 1.8 percent higher than white students, Dawe said. The numbers are based on first-time, full-time – true freshmen – students who graduated in six years.

Nationally, only 41 percent of black students who started college as first-time, full-time freshmen at four-year institutions in fall 2008 earned bachelor’s degrees within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That rate is 22 percentage points below their white peers nationally and creates a deep diversity gap in graduation numbers between African-American and white students who start and complete college, according to a recent report from the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates for minority and low-income students.

The report identified USCA and two other South Carolina colleges, Winthrop University in Rock Hill and Francis Marion University in Florence, as top-performing institutions for black students in the state.

According to the report, “many black students encounter a unique combination of financial, academic and social challenges that can make the path to degree completion rugged.” Those challenges include inequities in K-12 education that “mean that too many black students leave high school without acquiring the skills they need to immediately succeed in postsecondary education.”

USCA, however, has created programs and developed resources to help African-Americans – and all students – overcome any challenges they might bring with them to college and graduate, said Dr. Jeff Priest, the executive vice chancellor of Academic Affairs at USCA, saying the university’s goal is “to make sure that all of our students succeed.”

He added, however, that USCA has developed a number of programs to help first-generation students, defined as students whose parents or guardians have not completed a two-year or four-year college degree; students from lower socio-economic backgrounds; and students the university identifies as “at risk” complete their chosen degrees and graduate.

“Unfortunately, many of those students are African-American,” Priest said. “That’s just a nationwide truth.”

USCA created the STAR programs, which stands for Successful Transition and Readiness specifically for first-generation students, who make up about 40 percent of the university’s population, according to its website at usca.edu, and students in the provisional admission program who do not meet requirements for regular admission.

The STAR program, started in October 2015, helps first-generation students learn “how to navigate college because they don’t have parents at home who have been through the system.” Priest said.

“It’s like any other large bureaucracy,” he said. “When you come to college, there are steps and rules and regulations, and if you haven’t done it before, it can be daunting.”

To give first-generation students the tools and a strong foundation to navigate college successfully, the STAR program offers workshops, information sessions, tutoring and counseling and advising,

“The students meet periodically, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. It depends on the student,” Priest said. “Sometimes, students need somebody to talk to, so we provide counseling opportunities.”

Students also get together and talk to each other in informal peer-to-peer sessions.

“They learn from each other how to succeed,” Priest said.

Dr. Stacie Williams, the director of STAR programs, said her office “breaks down barriers” for first-generation students and student in provisional programs.

“We don’t want our students to have any hesitancy in finding the support and the resources they need,” she said.

Making that support and those resources accessible is an important goal, and USCA has accomplished it by building a tutoring center and classrooms in the residence hall where Williams’ office is located.

“Our students don’t have to go very far,” Williams said. “They can come straight from their rooms for tutoring or to the classroom, and we’re there for them.”

Beyond academics, Williams said her office introduces students to campus activities to ensure that they feel USCA is their home – a place where they want to be. That feeling of belonging fosters retention.

“You could have brilliant students, but if they haven’t found that an institution is their place, they might leave,” Williams said. “We want to help students be excited to be here and know that they are wanted to address the issue of not feeling like they belong before it becomes an issue.

“We try to make a community for our students. We’ve been so successful these past two and a half years because we really help students to find out that there is a place for them.”

Najha Smith, a rising junior originally from New York and now from Fort Mill, found her place at USCA working as a math tutor to students in STAR programs. Smith, who is a double major in chemistry and secondary education, said she is growing with the first-generation and provisional students she helps become successful.

“I love seeing how someone can go from being upset about being in a provisionally admitted program to loving it by the end of the semester and even getting to a comfortable place where they say they can survive in college on their own,” she said.

USCA has another program, MAP or Minority Achievement Program, similar to STAR, that pairs incoming minority freshman and transfer students with upperclassmen mentors, Priest said.

“It’s a peer-to-peer program, usually a junior or senior African-American student mentoring a freshman or sophomore African-American student,” he said. “That is is just another piece of the puzzle that helps make us successful.”

In addition to programs to help student adjust to college life, USCA also offers help with academic success, too.

The Center for Student Achievement focuses on academic advising, tutoring and counseling, Priest said. The center offers group and personalized services and resources to help USCA students achieve academic success, including workshops, individual tutoring and tips on time management, study skills and test taking. All services are free for enrolled USCA students.

USCA recently expanded its Learning Commons on the first floor of the Gregg-Graniteville Library and redecorated the area with comfortable chairs, tables for group study and new lighting.

“We’ve provided a larger space, a gathering area, to make it a little bit more user friendly,” Priest said. “It’s an open space and really is inviting for students.”

USCA offers open tutoring sessions in almost every subject area, and students do not have to make an appointment when they need extra help, Priest said.

During the first full semester in the new space, the center saw tutoring visits increase, said Troy Mothkovich, the coordinator of Tutoring and Supplemental instruction in the center.

“It was packed,” he said.

Mothkovich attributed the increase in part to a change from appointment tutoring to “drop-in” tutoring. Before, students submitted a form and went through several steps to get an appointment to work with a tutor. Now, students can just stop by the Learning Commons in the library.

“Now, if students need help with Spanish, they can just show up and say, hey, you help with Spanish, I have a quick question,” Mothkovich said. “If it doesn’t have a serious tone and they can pop in and ask a quick question and go, students are more likely to do it, and there is no stigma or shame that might have been associated with needing help and seeing a tutor as there might have been in the past.”

Mothkovich said the center’s goal is to help students succeed.

“For us, usually, that means graduation, but it could also include just getting through a course or improving writing,” he said. “Of course, our overall aim is to help students learn more, grow more and eventually get their degree from USC Aiken.”

USCA also enhanced its Writing Room to help students polish writing skills, Priest said.

Dr. Vicki Collins, a member of the English faculty and the director of the Writing Room, said the writing lab works closely with at-risk students, making it easy for them to seek help.

“We have a special classroom set up right beside the Writing Room, so my tutors will go across and work with them in the classroom, bring them to the Writing Room and continue to work with them there,” she said.

During the spring semester, tutors in the Writing Room provided more than 700 tutoring sessions, and more than 500 students attended 40 writing workshops, Collins said.

Seven student tutors, mostly English majors but also students, including veterans, from other disciplines, work in the Writing Room, and three faculty members act as professional consultants.

Collins said having student tutors is especially important in making students who need help with writing comfortable.

“They are more likely to come into the Writing Room when they see students,” said Collins, adding that the Writing Room’s purpose is not to make better papers but to make better writers. “If students see a faculty member in the Writing Room, sometimes if they don’t know them, they might be a little leery of them. Of course, if they sit down with a faculty member, they eventually relax and know that they they’re there to help, but the student tutors are just wonderful and so giving.”

Meredith Hawcroft, an English major who graduated in May and who helped train tutors and manage the Writing Room, said students relate to other students.

“When students come in, they immediately feel at home with a fellow student because they realize that they understand what they’re going through,” she said.

Transfer student Jeremy Jones, a political science major who also graduated in May, said the Writing Room was “very crucial to my graduating.”

“I was in here a lot. My writing was not all that good when I came to college,” he said. “They coached me through revisions and actually helped me learn to revise my own papers and succeed.”

Jones attributed the peer tutors in the Writing Room to his successfully completing his writing proficiency portfolio, which requires USCA students to submit three course-related papers that exemplify their best writing before graduation.

“I passed my writing portfolio on the first try with a 3.5.” he said.

USCA also established an attendance policy for first-year students to help them successfully transition to college.

The university requires faculty who teach 100- and 200-level courses, classes freshmen typically take, to take attendance for the first eight weeks.

If a student misses more than three classes during that period, he or she receives a personal phone call from a representative from the Center for Student Achievement to ask what problems a student might be having and how can the center help.

“We find that most students who leave us and who are not successful leave us after the first year,” Priest said. “If you look at the statistics there, they are more apt to leave if they are not successful in the first eight weeks of class. They tend to make their decisions then and say, hey, this is not for me.

“That personal touch has helped students understand that we do care about them and they do have somebody they can talk to, and many times, that’s all they need to stay in school, particularly for first-generations students. It might be the first time they’re away from home in a college atmosphere, and they just need someone to talk to.”

To further help first-year students during the first eight weeks, USCA implemented mid-term grades for 100- and 200-level classes.

“That lets students know where they stand, and then they can have a discussion with their advisor about whether they should drop or not drop a class and talk to their professor about what can they do to make up ground.”

In a related move, USCA extended the drop date on which students receive a W for withdrawing from a class instead of an F for failing it.

“We moved that date back a couple of weeks so that students have time to look at their mid-term grades and then talk to their advisor and make an intelligent decision about whether to drop a class or not,” Priest said. “That’s been very successful in helping retain students. We’ve actually seen the number of Ds and Fs in these classes drop. While the Ws have increased, more importantly, the As and Bs and Cs have increased.”

Priest said that when students persist in college and graduate they – and the state’s economy – both benefit.

Citing numbers from the Great Recession that started in 2008, Priest said the unemployment rate for people with four-year degrees was 4 percent, while the unemployment rate for people without college degrees climbed to 11 and 12 percent.

“The statistics are very clear,” Priest said. “If you have a four-year degree, you tend to do much better in life economically.

“It’s important for the community that our students do well. Most of our students – more than 80 percent– are from South Carolina. Because most of our students come from the state, graduating students who study here and stay here drives the economy of South Carolina.”

To help students prepare for those careers, USCA provides programs that make it easier for them to transition successfully to the workplace in the state or beyond after graduation.

Corey Feraldi, the director of USCA’s Office of Career Services, said he and his staff “try to work with freshmen and sophomores as much as we do juniors and seniors to get them started with career planning, their career goals and how to get there.”

“We want to be there with them from the start,” he said.

Feraldi said he and his staff work with Williams and the STAR programs, talk to freshmen classes and promote internships and other student employment opportunities. Students also shadow and interview working professionals and, through the College to Career Readiness program, talk to local employers, who discuss topics such as work ethics, professional behavior and handling conflict.

“When they hear from an employer in the community, it can mean a whole lot more to them than if we tell them during a presentation,” Feraldi said. “It’s the real world.”

Overall, Feraldi said he and his staff try to provide many different experiences before students graduate that will make them career ready.

“They’re competing against a lot of other graduates from other schools,” he said. “A lot of them have no idea what to expect when they transition into the working world. They need some experiences that are going to help them along that way.”

Beyond academics, Priest said finishing college for all students, in general, is positive.

“You tend to be happier when you have a four-year degree,” he said.

Williams said USCA’s commitment to helping all students – African-American, first-generation and provisional - succeed in college and graduate has paid off.

“What I’ve seen over the years is our university doesn’t just say, they believe in helping all of our students,” she said. “They really put programs, funding and people in place to make the success we’ve had happen.”

USC Aiken, a comprehensive university in the University of South Carolina system, offers undergraduate and master’s degrees to more than 3,500 students in 50 programs of study. USC Aiken is ranked the #1 public regional college in the South by U.S. News & World Report’s guide "America’s Best Colleges." The 2017 distinction marks USC Aiken’s 19th consecutive ranking among the top three in this category and its 12th time in first place.