What it Takes to Graduate From College

At the National Higher Education Summit, hosted by the National Urban League and USA Funds, an organization that has adopted “Completion with a Purpose” as the guiding principle for its philanthropy and investments, several panels addressed obstacles that derail student success.

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Discussing college completion and attainment on the panel of the same name were James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, a historically black college; Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College; Neil Horikoshi, president and executive director, Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund; Carrie L. Billy, president of the American Indian Education Consortium; Deborah Santiago, co-founder of Excelencia in Education; and Cheryl Smith, senior vice president of public policy and government at UNCF. The panel discussed college attainment and completion in light of the results of the Gallup-USA Funds research poll that had been presented at the summit earlier that same day.

Obstacles aplenty stand in the way of student success, the panelists agreed, including financial need, academic unpreparedness, and coming from a non-college-going culture. But solutions were also offered and discussed. Quillen said that Davidson admits students not only need-blind, it includes no loans in its financial aid packages. “That’s one way we’re making a contribution to the educational ecosystem,” she said, tacitly implying that more colleges could do the same (fewer than 100 schools exclude loans from their financial aid).

Billy noted, to a kind of sad hush in the room, that Native Americans were not included in the Gallup report, which had surveyed college graduates that identified as black, white, Asian, or Hispanic. She spoke of the need to look at the whole student in light of centuries of oppression and poverty, and said that American Indian students particularly need to have professors that value them and that tell them that they’re valued. So explicit, verbal affirmation is key for certain populations. The American Indian Education Consortium comprises 37 tribal colleges, which are considered place-based institutions. Thirteen offer four-year degrees, and five offer master’s degree programs.

Anderson asserted that STEM students need early research experiences, which can help retain them. Smith concurred, noting that the HBCU culture of connection, care, and experiential learning opportunities were strengths borne out in the Gallup research.

Santiago spoke to the need to examine graduates’ well-being (the Gallup poll surveyed five areas of well-being), and said there is a need to serve students, not just enroll them. She said the survey data needed to be contextualized further, and that it would be interesting to look at data of those who did not graduate: 33 million Americans begin college but never finish–what prevents them? “More students are attending part time, but part-time status is not correlated with graduation,” Santiago said.

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