Colleges and universities continue to struggle with serving low-income and first generation students.
While 60 percent of the wealthiest students complete their studies and graduate, only about 16 percent of low-income college students graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Michigan State University and 10 other public-research universities have committed to improving graduation rates for all students, calling it the biggest problem facing American higher education.
The University Innovation Alliance was formed to share information and help 68,000 more students at its member institutions to graduate by 2025. The alliance’s goal is for at least half of those students being low-income.
Participating schools include Oregon State University, University of California-Riverside, Arizona State University, University of Texas-Austin, University of Kansas, Iowa State University, Purdue University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Georgia State University and University of Central Florida.
After three years, the schools report the number of graduates has increased by more than 7,200. This includes a nearly 25 percent increase in the number of low-income graduates.
One of the key successes comes from a computer program that Georgia State University in Atlanta was using.
The program reviews how students progress, and notifies advisors when a student shows signs of making mistakes or facing difficulty in their study programs. Then, advisors can reach out to help students before these problems grow.
At MSU, the computer program made a huge difference, said Kristen Renn, a professor of higher education at MSU.
“If I’m an academic advisor in chemistry and if one of my students drops calculus in the middle of a semester ... advising it was very difficult,” she told VOA. “But currently, that student dropping a class would send an alert to the adviser, who then can contact the student and say, ‘Why did you drop the class? Did you know this is required? ... Can we talk about what’s going on?’”
MSU took it a step further and examined how it communicated with its students. The administration discovered that students often overlooked important email because it was buried among too many other messages. The school greatly reduced its emails to students.
The University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas quickly began doing the same, says DeAngela Burns-Wallace, an administrator of undergraduate studies.
In return, KU shared information about its successful work-study programs with the alliance. KU paid undergraduates for research work to help support them financially and develop an early interest in research. Several other schools began to do the same.
Burns-Wallace says the sharing of information between institutions makes the alliance program so successful.
“I have colleagues that are in financial aid or ... student affairs or ... research who can pick up the phone and have a colleague at 11 other institutions give immediate feedback on a project or ... understand how the others have done it and maybe identify ... other opportunities,” she told VOA.
Bridget Burns, the executive director for the UIA, says change does not come quickly to many colleges and universities, especially large, public ones. But they need to change how they evaluate how much they help low-income students, she said.
“How well you do for low-income students has not historically been ... highlighted. ... We know that progress is possible, that we can do better. But we need to actually create ... rewards to highlight this kind of behavior.”
Burns said she hopes sharing the successes of the UIA schools will help other public and private institutions. She wants other schools to create partnerships, and devise more improvements for college students.