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Raising Graduation Rates for Underrepresented Students

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Increasing graduation rates, closing the achievement gap, helping students engage and working career planning into the college curriculum were just a handful of the topics discussed at the recent meeting of Optimizing Academic Success and Institutional Strategy (OASIS), a national effort launched by The Education Trust.

More than 50 higher education administrators, faculty and staff attended the program at Cal State Fullerton.

“You need an amazing team to achieve this progress,” said President Mildred García in welcoming the group. “Over the past three years, we have increased our graduation rate to 62 percent, our achievement gap dropped to nine percent, and we have essentially eliminated the transfer student gap from six percent to zero.

“What is critical to this success is departments working collaboratively,” she continued. “By learning together and involving all divisions … we can help students achieve their goals of graduating.”

José L. Cruz, provost and vice president for academic affairs, described the importance of strategic planning and intentionality.

“We all have tight budgets so there isn’t a lot to fund new programs,” he said. “But what we do have are knowledgeable people. Our challenge is to determine the best ways to allocate their time and talents.”

Berenecea Johnson Eanes, vice president for student affairs, emphasized the need to ensure the campus community understands the importance of collaboration and the role each unit plays.

“Working with academic affairs, we looked at what changes needed to be made and we developed plans to get a clear sense of where to begin and how to get the right people in the right places,” she said. “Then we gave them the support to do their jobs well.”

Other campus members, serving on a student success team panel, discussed how these teams have improved student success and increased graduation rates.  

“After our initial assessments, we developed different teams to focus on different areas,” said Mark Filowitz, associate dean, College of Natural Science and Mathematics. “As a result of our work, we developed better ways to reach students who needed help.

“The campus created student success centers for each college so students could get the answers they need. We drilled into the data to look at individual students and figure out processes on how to reach them,” Filowitz added. “Specific programs were developed for different groups of students. For example, the needs of first-year freshmen are different than those of transfer students.”

“Assistant deans advocate for students and provide one-on-one assistance,” said Maricela Alvarado, assistant dean, College of the Arts, discussing how childcare, transportation and financial concerns or learning disabilities can have an impact on retention.

College-specific graduation specialists were developed because students from different colleges have different needs, said Mary Lehn-Mooney, graduation specialist, College of Health and Human Development. Though outreach programs, students are led in the right direction, added Kortnee Burrell, retention specialist, College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“We not only work with students but with faculty to see how they can incorporate career preparedness into their curriculum,” explained Marisa Perez-Amorde, career specialist, College of Humanities and Social Services. “We ask students, ‘How does your major connect to your career goals?’ We try to help them in planning the next steps. What comes after graduation?”