College Completion Summit 2019 – Panel 3

College Completion Summit Audio Recap
University Marketing & Communications
Leveling the Playing Field: Achieving Equity in Completion panel discussion


UMC:  This is an audio recap of the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and the Lumina Foundation.

On September 30 and October 1, 2019, the College Completion Summit brought together presidents and senior leaders from public universities that have significantly advanced their college completion rates.

Dhanfu Elston, vice president for strategy at College Completion America, delivered a keynote for the panel discussion titled “Leveling the Playing Field: Achieving Equity in Completion.”

Dhanfu Elston:  So, for us, equity has been and continues to be at the forefront of our scale of adoption. We realize that there are some foundational challenges around equity. What we know is that underserved populations of students tend to be overrepresented at the less selective institutions, which oftentimes have lower graduation rates and fewer resources. We know that. We know that too many students of color are frequently stuck in a traditional model of remediation. We know that too many students start out without being on a firm track from how this aligns with their academic and their career goals and their life goals. And then we also know that we have more and more students enrolling part time and, at the same time, we realize that fewer of these part-time students are succeeding.

So, when we talk equity, we’re talking about some of these big issues that are in front of us. And then when you think about the metrics and the evidence, what we also realize is that there is a moral imperative for knowing the data. As we go around the country, having this conversation around college completion, it’s always a great conversation when you talk about national data. Everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s a challenge. We need to work on that.” And then you say, “And here’s your state.” And they all, “Oh, yes, problematic.” And you go, “And here’s your institution.” And they’re like, “Oh, that can’t be right. That data can’t be right.”

And where we are now, talking about equity, is that now we’re even digging deeper beyond the aggregate of our institutions, and we’re saying, “what does our campus look like for Latinx students or for African-American students?” And these are the conversations that we have to have. So, when I say there’s a moral imperative around knowing the data, that’s what I’m talking about.

UMC:  This is David Lassner, president of University of Hawai’i.

David Lassner:  So, let me mention some of our specific equity and gap programs. One is Early College, which has been a remarkable equity program for us. It has helped us close gaps in college attendance and persistence and now graduation rates. We are now driving that into pathways, to drive purpose much farther in. We have incorporated our equity goals into our performance funding, so campuses are rewarded for making progress. Thank you, Tennessee, we’re starting a promise program and trying to drive that into our four-year universities as well. I don’t know if any of you are aware of the SNAP Employment and Training Program, but it’s a way to get federal matching funds for food and other life expenses for students who are career oriented. Kudos to our students who are here. Our student government started a food bank, so we’re helping our students that way. Lots and lots of underrepresented minority grants are out there, especially for STEM fields, and our faculty have become really good at getting those, including for summer bridge programs.

And lastly, let me say, because organizational structure came up, one of the things that we are now looking at UH Manoa is not overlaying student success on top of student affairs and academic affairs, but actually blowing those two up completely and recreating two new approaches, one called student success and one called educational excellence. And everything has to be focused on one or the other, or we don’t know why we have it.

UMC: Here’s Monica Brockmeyer, associate provost for student success at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She discussed three ways that her university is addressing the disparities of college completion. She describes the second example here.

Monica Brockmeyer:  The second way we did that had moved towards closing our disparities is through a pilot program, our Warrior VIP. It’s an impact program that students are representing from the VIP program here today, and we use that really as a pilot where we synthesized our advising, our strategic care, our analytics, our study skills, tutoring, everything we invested in, we did it in that and delivered that in a very focused way on the needs of our incoming students in that program with an eye towards equity. And the recruited students for that program, at the point of admissions, using data also to suggest that they might benefit from having that extra support. I’m really, really excited to say that our very first pilot year, our students were retained. Our Black students in VIP outperformed our White students across the board on our campus with their retention in the second year. In the first year. I was crying, I ran to the president’s office. You know our president, he’s very serious. But we’ve continued that in our second year to really say that our students are with the VIP program and also in our FYS for our study skills course outperformed the rest of the campus.

UMC: Here’s Timothy Rennick, senior vice president for student success at Georgia State University.

Timothy Rennick: One of our most recent changes was we had the huge problem as recently as three or four years ago, 2015, 19% of our confirmed freshman class never showed up for fall classes—the problem known as summer melt. These are mostly low-income, first-generation students who do everything right leading up to college. They graduate high school, they take the ACT or SAT, they get into college, they confirm they’re going to go, but they never end up attending.

And when we took a hard look at ourselves, it was clear that we were the problem. There were about 14 different bureaucratic steps we were expecting students to complete in between finishing high school and starting college, a time when they are no longer in contact with their high school teachers and counselors and not yet on our campus. And so what we did in the summer of 2006 is became one of the first schools in the country to pioneer an AI-enhanced chat bot to help students through that summer period. The chat bot is an automatic texting platform we built with a knowledge base of over 2,000 answers to commonly asked questions by our incoming students.

The reason I’m mentioning all of this as part of an equity panel is, in the first three months we had that chat bot operating, between June and August of 2016, we had over 200,000 questions answered. We ran a random control trial with a research out of the University of Pittsburgh, and what she found is not only did all students benefit from this particular intervention, but disproportionately, the students who benefited were our Pell students, were our first-generation students, were our underserved students, the students who, in the past, would have gotten tripped up by all that bureaucracy during the summer.

UMC: This is Nikos Varelas, vice provost for undergraduate affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Nikos Varelas:  We have created a leadership network. We have identified where custom predictive analytics, students who need the extra help in order to be retained to the second year. And we added coaching, freshman coaching. We give them $200 a semester for one year only. We connect them with career-services coaches. We provide work on campus and also workshops in order to strengthen practice. That program, for two years in a row, has increased retention for these students 20 percentage points.

We tried to increase the number of students who graduate in four years and, as a matter of fact, in the last three, four years, we increased the four-year graduation rate by 7 percentage points. And we’re breaking the records every year. Even this year, broke the record from last year.

When students finish their first year but they are not at the sophomore status and they are assigned by six-credit hours or less, so what we do is we offer them over the summer sessions where they take two courses, they pay one and we pay the other. So that way they can speed up their degree process.

UMC: Here’s keynote speaker Dhanfu Elston, vice president for strategy at College Completion America, with the main takeaways from the hour-long discussion.

Dhanfu Elston: I think that there are so many opportunities in this work. You know, higher education, as one of my colleagues on the panel mentioned—there are things in society that we didn’t cause, but higher education can be a solution to many of those issues. And so, that’s exciting, you know what I’m saying, I think that’s what drives many of us, and that’s what makes sure that we’re committed to the work.

First of all, we had an amazing panel of individuals. And what I love about sitting around these key players in higher education is that there’s nothing better than a story that this work can be done. So, when we’re talking about closing opportunity gaps and equity in higher education, there’s a reality that a lot of people have realized that this is urgent.

This is something that institutions have to do and it’s not just about my campus and how it’s going impact us and our standings and our rankings, this is a moral imperative for our country and we have to have more minoritized populations. Whether that be Pell-eligible students or whether it be rural students. We know that race and ethnicity constantly overlap in those issues. And so talking through the realities that are in front of us. And the fact that people are doing it. That there are campuses that are doing it well. So, when people say it’s hard, well of course it’s hard. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a thing. But to recognize there are institutions that are recognizing that level of commitment, that’s just really exciting.

I love it and I shout it from the rooftops when we hear these stories of institutions doing well and there’s frustration that there are too many students still not doing well and not being served as well as they can be. So, we’ve got work to do. We’ve got work to do. These kinds of conversations where you have a network and community of individuals all pulling in the same direction, has to be part of that conversation because we have too many institutions that don’t get a chance to learn and develop and grow in this process. It’s not where we want it to be, but the national agenda, and the national narrative is taking place. We’re involving not just institutions, but legislators and governor’s offices and the general public, families and cities in this conversation around the importance of college completion knowing that that is going to have hug implications for areas that serve high populations of students of color.

UMC: Thank you for listening. Find the audio recap of the next panel discussion, “Data and Technology Contributions to Completion,” and other summit proceedings at