UC Riverside Looks to Boost Graduation Rates

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BY DAVID OLSON / STAFF WRITER, The Press EnterprisePublished: Sept. 18, 2014 Updated: Sept. 19, 2014 8:13 a.m.

UC Riverside and 10 other large public research universities are launching an $11 million effort to increase graduation rates among low-income students and those whose parents did not attend college.

Studies show that such students obtain degrees at lower rates than other pupils.

Members of the University Innovation Alliance will share ideas and programs and provide mentoring to one another on successful strategies. That information then will be disseminated to other institutions. UCR is the only California university in the alliance.

All 11 universities enroll a large number of low-income students and people who are the first in their families to go to college. At UCR, more than half of undergraduates receive Pell Grants – federal grants for low-income students – or are first-generation college students.

Those students come to college with a number of disadvantages, said Debbie Veney, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based educational research and policy organization.

Low-income students, for example, may have to work while taking classes, may have attended less academically rigorous high schools and are more likely to have parents who don’t know how to help them navigate college, Veney said. They often need more support, and at some universities, they don’t get enough of it, she said. That can lead to big gaps in graduation rates.

UCR is one of the few universities in the country at which low-income and first-generation college students – and black and Latino students – graduate at roughly the same rate as undergraduates as a whole.

But the university still has much to learn from its 10 alliance partners, said UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox.

“We are way ahead of other universities on (narrowing) the gap in graduation rates, but there are some things we don’t do as well as others,” he said.

For example, UCR’s overall graduation rate remains below that of several other UC schools and of alliance members such as the University of Texas at Austin. More than 80 percent of students at Austin graduate within six years. At UCR, about 66 percent of first-year students who entered the university in 2007 had graduated within six years.

“That’s not good enough,” Wilcox said.

Even though the focus of the alliance is low-income and first-generation college students, the research and collaboration will lead to programs that help all students graduate, he said.

UT-Austin, Georgia State University and Arizona State University – which also are alliance members – are leaders in using data to identify students who are more likely to have trouble graduating and then using various programs to help them succeed. The three universities will advise UCR and the other seven institutions on strategies.

UCR also tries to predict which students will need extra help, but “we haven’t implemented approaches that are as comprehensive as those three institutions have,” said Steven Brint, UCR’s vice provost of undergraduate education.

In the future, UCR will be a mentor to other alliance members on programs that studies show have increased graduation rates at Riverside, Brint said.

UCR offers first-year students “learning communities” in which groups of students who typically take courses together meet in study groups, receive tutoring and learn time management techniques and study skills. The university also created a supplemental instruction program, in which students in classes that have an especially high number of D’s and F’s each year receive additional academic support.

Sanjay Ghai, a UCR biology major about to start his junior year, participated in both programs when he was a first-year student. The time management discussions helped him structure his day. The supplemental instruction included upper-division students who previously had excelled in the courses Ghai was taking.

“You hear from their perspective what to focus on in studying,” said Ghai, who comes from a middle-income home in Orange and whose father graduated from college but whose mom did not. “That helped me in preparing for tests.”

UCR is a national leader in working to help students of all backgrounds graduate, Veney said.

“They have a whole ecosystem and infrastructure built around helping low-income and first-generation students,” she said.

Veney said much progress has been made in recent years in increasing the number of low-income, first-generation and minority students who attend college. But there isn’t enough of a focus on helping those students graduate.

The close collaboration among the 11 universities — and their willingness to disseminate their findings widely – is one reason the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing $3 million in funding for the alliance, according to Dan Greenstein, director of postsecondary success for the foundation. Effective programs often aren’t shared with other institutions, he said in an email.

Half of the $11.2 million for the alliance comes from foundations. The other half is from the universities. The money will pay for expenses such as pilot programs at the universities, travel costs, research and reports.

Brint said getting more students to graduate from college benefits everyone. Regions with a highly educated workforce attract more jobs and businesses, he said. The Inland Empire has one of the lowest percentages of residents with college degrees of any large U.S. metropolitan area.

Wilcox said studies show that the single greatest determinant of whether a child eventually gets a college degree is parental income. Median household income in the Inland area is $7,000 a year below that of the state as a whole. The alliance aims to give students of all backgrounds an equal shot at graduation, he said.

“This is about equity, and this country is all about equal opportunity,” he said. “And right now, opportunities are not equal.”

Contact the writer: 951-368-9462 or dolson@pe.com