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Excerpt from the Plenary Panel “Diverse Perspectives on Student Success”



Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Bettye Parker Smith, Dillard University

I think what you’re hearing here is that we have different notions about what student success might be or that you might be the ones, out here in the audience, to tell us what it is. Whatever it is, I believe very strongly that retention and student success on all our campuses is everybody’s business.

For many years, colleges and universities have been active in establishing programs and activities which are designed to address those challenges associated with student retention. These efforts generally fall under the rubric of something called “first year seminars”: they are institutionally based and they reflect those issues which are individually identified, all of this trying to lead to the magic kingdom of student success. Primarily these programs are intended to assist students, as you know, in strengthening academic skills and in negotiating their academic environment so that they can successfully transition to their second year of college. While research informs us that matriculating successfully through the first year is no guarantee of persistence to completion, many colleges and universities continue to offer first year student programs and seminars anyway. In fact, some 74% of American colleges and universities have designed some sort of first year course, and about 88% of these institutions offer these courses with of academic credit and often a letter grade. Without question, these courses differ in content and form, and they reflect the type, size, mission, and challenge faced by these institutions.

My concentration today is on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their efforts to formalize their approaches for addressing the obstacles that they have faced which impede success in the first year college experience. Considering that HBCUs entered onto the higher education playing field at a different timeline and under ambiguous circumstances, their thrust in addressing these issues in a formal way may have been due to many obstacles over these years. These institutions were created to provide educational opportunities for African American students who have been the primary attendees at these 118 public and private institutions since their inception. At this stage in the progress of college access, African Americans have the opportunity now to attend practically any institution, but African Americans continue on a large scale to select HBCUs for their baccalaureate degree.

The success of producing large numbers of graduates notwithstanding, in their early years these universities on a large scale did not have a formal infrastructure to address issues relating to retention and student success. Nonetheless, informal measures taken by faculty and staff served over the years to assist students in all categories needed for them to graduate. To a large measure these students continue to be first generation college students and often have a strong and immediate need for academic advising and mentoring, those factors required for college success. Therefore, it is probably quite safe to conjecture that all institutions of higher learning equate student success to the efficacy of sound basic academic skills, the ability of their students to negotiate the institution’s environment, to complete the requirements for their degrees in a timely manner, and to exit into the world with the ability to live a life of good citizenry. The extensions to these basic components of student success vary in importance with the university’s defined needs. To date, most HBCUs have developed a formal process for engaging new students as they help them advance to the sophomore level and on to completion of the degree. Allow me to profile the birth, the growing pains, and the ultimate “success” of a first year program at Dillard University which I designed and shepherded as Provost: the Jubilee Scholars Program.

Upon my arrival at Dillard University, I was greeted with the following: a strong office of enrollment management with a sophisticated and highly successful recruiting formula; a fast-paced enrollment goal of doubling the enrollment from 1500 to 3000 students; a high first to second year attrition factor; and complaints from faculty about the escalating faculty-student ratio. Having addressed these issues at another HBCU, I built this program to begin in the fall of my first year, and it yielded immediate results. Retention, when I arrived, was somewhere around 47% return from the first to the second year, and the first class of the JSP program quickly changed that factor to 76%. The JSP has several elements: 1) making retention successful and success everybody’s business; 2) placing oversight of the program in the Office of the Provost; and 3) hiring recent graduates, we call them Faculty Fellows, who could hold the positions for two years and who would commit to graduate school application. The program included a letter grade course with a textbook that concentrated on study habits, time management, and critical thinking skills, cultural rituals, a requirement to attend chapel, journal logging, and a methodical introduction to graduate and professional schools. Therefore, strongly embedded in our definition of student success was the training of students to commit to a lifelong educational process where their life journey would be measured by a strong set of ethics and values and self-determination.

We extended this program to include second and third year retention efforts which yielded a high four year graduation rate for the first class and a high percentage of seniors gaining multiple acceptances into graduate and professional schools at graduation. Dillard’s early participation in the NYU Faculty Resource Network and formalized relationships with other major universities has been a significant factor in this regard. However, among the primary objectives of this student success initiative is preparing our students for the level of academic strength and desire to seek graduate school admission and complete the Ph.D., thereby increasing the pool of historically underrepresented doctorates, particularly in historically underrepresented fields. Indeed, this was one of the early charges made to HBCUs by earlier scholars who were concerned with our mission and our scope. These goals extended and personalized the general definition of academic success for Dillard. I realized that such goals were impossible without providing a formal avenue for academic success at the baccalaureate stage; I also wanted our students to understand the relationship between what they had come to learn at Dillard and the person whom they would become.

So what did we learn? Student success programs can be costly, faculty resistance is imminent, HBCUs can successfully challenge their students to complete a baccalaureate in four years, and institutionalizing specialized programs can be short-lived. Measuring these results, however, becomes a lifelong mission for the University.