After touring ACU during her senior year of high school, Alvina Scott was sure where she wanted to spend the next four years. But for Scott, entering ACU and remaining at ACU became two very different things. In the spring semester of 2008, a week before finishing her freshman year, Scott received an e-mail telling her a hold had been placed on her account. She owed $5,000 and would not be able to return to ACU the next fall unless the amount was paid.
Scott did not give up easily. She stayed in Abilene that summer with Dr. Tanya Brice, associate professor of social work, to focus on returning to ACU. Scott sent e-mails to professors and members of her congregation in Abilene to try to find the money she needed.
“There was no luck,” Scott said. “I did that all summer.”
But with the help of Brice and George Pendergrass, director of the Office for Multicultural Enrichment, Scott finally received the money she needed to stay at ACU a week after the fall 2008 semester started.
Alvina Scott’s personal commitment to finish what she started paid off, but many other minority students at ACU still struggle to stay in school semester to semester.
ACU’s ability to retain diverse students – students of African American, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian and other descent – is still much lower than the university’s retention of white students.
According to the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, the average retention rate for black students in the past nine years is 61.8 percent and 68.7 percent for Hispanic students. For white students at ACU, this number is 76.4 percent. These percentages are based on retention from freshman year to first semester of sophomore year.
ACU’s Fall 2009 entering class was deemed “the most diverse class in ACU’s history,” by Multicultural Enrollment Marketing Specialist Daniel Garcia. Of the incoming freshman class, 11.1 percent was black, 10.5 percent was Hispanic, and the total diversity percentage, which comprised domestic and international minorities, was 26.4 percent. This is certainly a step forward in the area of diversity, but little else matters if these students do not persist to their sophomore year, let alone through graduation.
“Our students have a huge responsibility to demand that we adhere to maintaining diversity at all costs,” Pendergrass said.
Hayley Webb, director of student retention and services, said in comparison to other universities with equivalent test scores, ACU’s retention data by gender and race is consistent with national trends. The average ACT composite for ACU incoming freshmen is 24.
“Taking into account the quality of our student input, we fare well with other comparable universities and national averages,” Webb said in an e-mail.
While ACU sophomore retention rates and the six-year graduation rates subdivided by race similarly follow national averages, a gap remains between graduating minorities and white students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of full-time, first-time white students who enrolled at ACU in the fall of 2002 and graduated by 2008 was 63 percent, while the same percentage for black students was 31 percent.
According to a recent story in U.S. News and World Report, about 40 percent of minorities – including blacks, Hispanics and American Indians – graduate from college within six years. The average for white students is 60 percent.
Finances, Fit and Academics
Several components play a part in a university’s ability to retain students, especially minority students. The 401 private universities polled in a survey – completed by ACT in 2004 – on private college retention rates identified three factors that made a moderate or higher institutional contribution to attrition: amount of student financial aid available, student-institution fit and social environment. Garcia said multicultural students at ACU often leave for either financial or social-fit reasons. Often, a mixture of several factors results in a student’s early exit, Webb said.
“There is not just one reason usually that students don’t persist,” Webb said. “Very often, if they are not doing well academically, it may result from them having to work 40 hours because they are having trouble paying the bills.”
Although not always true, evidence shows colleges with high black graduation rates often have a strong and relatively large core of black students on campus. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “among the highest-ranked colleges and universities, institutions that tend to have a low percentage of blacks in their student bodies also tend to have lower black student graduation rates.” The ability to connect with a community is vital for a student to feel as though he or she belongs.
“When you are in the minority and you often deal with marginalization, your first default thought is that marginalization is going to happen where you are,” Pendergrass said.
Mending the Gap
Many universities are taking action to close the gap between minority and white student graduation rates. According to the 2008 Education Sector report, Graduation Rate Watch: Making Minority Student Success a Priority, Towson University in Maryland went from a graduation rate gap of minus 20 percentage points in 2001 (the white rate was 65 percent, compared to 45 percent for black students) to plus 1 point in 2006 (64 percent for white students; 65 percent for black students). The admission counselors at Towson attribute much of the change to giving more weight to high school grades and less to SAT scores when deciding who to admit. Students who did well in their high school courses, they found, were more likely to be ready for college-level work.
What Works In Student Retention – Four-Year Private Colleges, cited three separate categories as having the greatest effect on retention rates: first-year programs, academic advising and learning support. ACU supports several programs in each of these categories, such as University 100 seminars (first-year programs), mandatory academic advising for freshmen and learning support departments such as the Career Center.
“The interesting thing about our campus is there really are a lot of things going on pertaining to culture and diversity,” Pendergrass said. “There’s tons of stuff going on because our school is focused on trying to bring diversity in every department, but because it’s not centralized, a lot of these things go under the radar.”
Programs such as Student Success are designed to help freshmen make the transition from high school to college more smoothly. Other programs, including Support our Students, or S.O.S., and Alpha, also give ACU students opportunities to improve academically and refer them to outlets in which they can make personal, academic or career/major decisions.
Besides making sure students in need of help know about these programs, Webb and Pendergrass agree when professors and peers recognize a student is struggling, they can better provide help.
“The greater awareness that we can build, the more likely we are to come to the aid of students who are struggling,” said Webb.
Social involvement plays a large factor in student retention. Webb said students who regularly attend Chapel and play intramurals are more likely to stay at ACU, regardless of their race. Connections to peers and adults are also important to keep students from feeling like just a number, Pendergrass said.
“You’ve got to have mentors,” Pendergrass said. “When students have made connections to adults, the students feel they have family and like they belong.”
The programs already in place to keep ACU students from falling through the cracks are not the only ways the university is addressing diversity, retention and graduation rates. Mark Lavender, director of admissions, points to the 21st Century Vision’s goal of 25 percent ethnic diversity.
“It’s in our 21st Century Vision to increase the percentage of undergraduate students from a diverse background,” Lavender said.
He said the Office of Admissions works with incoming students to make sure they are aware of the financial obligations an ACU education requires. If the admissions staff has any concerns about a future student’s ability to persist, Lavender said the retention office is contacted.
“We oftentimes will provide for them leads about students with retention problems,” he said.
Pendergrass said minority students currently part of the ACU community need to become involved in the recruiting process if ACU diversity is to increase.
“How are we planning to recruit students of color when there are no students of color in the admissions office?” Pendergrass said. “It’s very important for people to see other people like themselves.”
A retention task force team was also developed in Webb’s office last summer to directly address retention issues. The team, made up of several faculty and staff members, meets to discuss possible strategies to adopt universitywide, including ways to increase communication with students and parents; streamlining helpful resources for struggling students; and an increase in retention and graduation data.
This data includes a predictive model recruiters hope will better target potential students’ retention abilities. The Office for Multicultural Enrichment is also working on developing a way to track the involvement in multicultural groups on campus through an iPhone app.
Pendergrass said with the help of the entire ACU community, more students like Scott will have the drive, the potential and the support to graduate – regardless of race, background or financial means.
“This is something we need to get the whole school involved in,” he said. “When you have the entire school involved, then it will happen.”
Scott took it upon herself to find the means to graduate from ACU. She said her commitment to stay at ACU is for herself and for those she hopes to help as a social worker.
“At a very young age, I was told I was going to college, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Scott said. “Thinking about the people I want to help keeps me going.”