Sunday, December 12, 2010

Raising Graduation Rates

Towson University, a state school in suburban Baltimore, was once a sleepy place attended by kids who got rejected by other schools or wanted to stay close to home. Over the past twenty years, two successive presidents have been on a mission to make it into something better. They changed the name from Towson State and have invested a ton of money in new buildings, facilities, programs, and so on. I have always been dubious about this whole program, on the theory that the state is just pouring money into a scheme to draw better students who could just as well have gone somewhere else.

Today's Washington Post, though, has a feature that makes me think better of Towson's program. Once saddled with a miserable graduation rate, the school has raised their overall rate to 65%, and they have eliminated the gap between minority students and white students. This, I think, is an achievement of a different order than fielding a good lacrosse team or building a swanky student union. How did they do it? First, they changed their admission criteria:
Fifteen years ago, as a way to boost graduation rates, school leaders decided to emphasize high school grades as the dominant factor in admitting students. Internal research had convinced them that students who entered Towson with high GPAs tended to graduate, regardless of SAT scores, and that students with high test scores but low grades were more likely to drop out.
That is, they chose students who have a track record of making the effort, rather than those who seemed to have the ability but hadn't been making the effort. Second, they set up intensive programs for potential problem students:
The heart of the effort is a program called SAGE, or Students Achieve Goals through Education. Each year, nearly 200 entering freshmen from disadvantaged backgrounds are paired with mentors. They connect over the summer. The mentorship lasts through the crucial first year.

Mentors are trained to practice what director Raft Woodus calls "intrusive caring": gently but firmly prying into every aspect of the freshman's life, probing for problems.

"You have to eat every day. You have to study," said Herbert, a mentor. "I make sure they do it. I do it with them."

Minorities and first-in-their-family college students are steered into another program, Support for Student Success. Initiated by Caret, it offers an 11-week overview of every resource available to Towson students, along with exercises in team-building and study skills. Classes are taught by trained counselors.

Problems like the low graduation rate of minority students often seem intractable, but universities are finding that they can be improved with enough effort.

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