Attention to social mobility, students fuels Dominican U. success

The private university has embraced its mission to serve all students in the Chicago area, particularly those from the Latinx community, and its enrollment and retention numbers underscore that commitment.
By: | February 24, 2021
Photo courtesy of Dominican University

Located just 10 miles outside of one of the nation’s most vibrant cities, Dominican University near Chicago has an edge on recruiting that many other institutions of higher education don’t have: access to 26,000 public school students.

Of course, getting them interested and enrolling – and then keeping them at this small private university – does require a good amount of effort and ingenuity. And often, quite a bit of assurance and assistance.

It’s that outreach, that continual responsiveness to student populations – both those it is seeking and those that is trying to retain – that sets Dominican apart. By keeping tuition modest, offering big financial packages and understanding its role in serving those from underserved communities, the university has become a model in the Midwest for similar-sized institutions.

U.S. News and World Report, in fact, rated it No. 1 in social mobility in the Midwest in 2020, and it earned the top spot in state of Illinois in 2021. This year, in addition to having one of the largest freshman classes in the past 10 years, Dominican enjoyed the highest retention rate in its history among its Latinx population. This is a key statistic because as a Hispanic-serving institution, more than 70% of those who attend this university are Latinx.

“We’re very excited [about the numbers], but we also understand that our colleagues and other institutions are struggling to rally around that,” said Dr. Barrington Price, vice president of student success and engagement at Dominican. “What is the key? It’s responsiveness. It’s understanding who the students are, developing those relationships and asking them on a consistent basis: Where are you? What’s going on? How can we help? The more you do that, the more feedback you get, the quicker the response time and the more refined the interventions can be, to get ahead of their issues.”

Being open to the notion of finding often overlooked students and giving them the tools to succeed once they enroll is just one part of the formula for success at Dominican.

“All students can have success if they have a healthy, developed relationship to learning. It’s important that that’s a caveat, because higher education has not always been in that space. We’ve been in an exclusionary stance,” Price says. “Now we’re in the space of access and opportunity. When you’re creating access for students, it is imperative that the folks who are in front of students are not viewing them from a deficit mindset. That is part of our sweet sauce of how we’re walking alongside students.”

Overcoming barriers to success

One of the challenges for any private university operating in 2021, and in the throes of the pandemic, is cost for students. At Dominican, where many students are from first-generation families, there can be hurdles to entry, such as finding aid and navigating through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Many prospective students and families, for example, get flagged for verification.

Barrington Price, Vice President of Student Success and Engagement at Dominican University

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to refine the language that we’ve used to make it clear and concise, to have directives that parents need to do,” Price says. “In terms of what schools are doing and how they’re discounting, that’s a game that financial aid units across and admissions units across the country are playing. But what I think we all have to get right is how we’re communicating and telling families how to navigate that system.”

To that end, Dominican offers financial literacy models through its Family Academy to assist in the process. In terms of meeting those cost barriers, Dominican tries to be “responsive in the packaging,” Price says.

Tuition cost at Dominican hovers just below $35,000. Room and board is around $11,000, though the majority of students commute. All new freshmen students receive financial aid and the average when taking into account all sources – need-based grants and awards and loans is around $33,000, according to U.S. News and World Report data. The university works with TheDream.US, Bottom Line and the Pritzker Scholarship Fund to help close those gaps.

In August, Dominican was awarded a five-year Department of Education TRIO Student Support Services grant to support 148 low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities. That instantly has been a game-changer for those students in their quest to keep academic scores high and get on the right path to degree completion, as it offers tutoring, financial literacy and career guidance.

“As soon as I started my college career at Dominican, I was surrounded by individuals who offered me support,” said student Adriana Jimenez. “During my first semester, I was enrolled in an ID 101 (Blueprint for Academic Success) class that helped me settle in and offered helpful advice to make the rest of my college years successful. Since then, I have sought out support on campus and have learned how to support others as well. I became a peer mentor for the ID 101 class last fall and am now an ambassador for the TRIO program so I can use my experiences to help guide students through their first semester of college.”

Lewis Hall on the campus of Dominican University in River Forest, Ill.

Putting it all together

More than just meeting the financial need of incoming students, Dominican has been leading the way on other support and academic performance efforts to help those who are already enrolled at the university.

Price, who serves on the Advisory Council for To & Through Project in partnership with the University of Chicago and K-12 schools to get students of color to degree completion, is helping see through several other difference-making initiatives on Dominican’s campus, including:

  • A National Science Foundation grant that places peer tutors in STEM classes to help with retention
  • The launch of the Center for Cultural Liberation, which helps create a sense of belonging on campus, particularly for students of color
  • A connection to jobs and service through programs such as the Beloved Community  and Ministry en lo Cotidiano, as many students need to work to provide for families
  • The implementation of an alert system at 3, 6 and 9 weeks for all new students to ensure they are staying on track academically

“How are we retaining them? It’s everything from refining our communication plan to instituting a bimonthly assessment that we give to all students, which says, ‘Respond to these three items: that you need help, you’ve got this or you’re figuring it out,’ ” Price says. “The schools that have been touted across the country that have increased GPAs and persistence have been incredibly responsive to what their students are telling them.

“We have organized an academic alert team that responds to those surveys and then comes together to create solutions. With COVID, we retained a whole lot of students, but we found that they fell into our at-risk category. They are non-probation students, but they’re not thriving either. They’re just under this 2.5 GPA.”

So Dominican created a series of modules and incentives, along with coaching help, to encourage students to participate in areas that can drive academic success.

“These incentives have worked wonders in terms of student outcomes,” he says.

Reaching out, making a difference

Dominican’s Division of Student Success and Engagement has been instrumental in positively affecting academic outcomes, especially for those like Leslie Arroyo who come from lower-income, first-generation families and aren’t sure what career track might be best.

“Dominican faculty’s advice, teaching style and academic support allowed me to explore different majors,” says Arroyo, a senior majoring in psychology with a minor in Spanish who was undecided about her major but now has a goal of being a bilingual speech pathologist. “They exposed me to research, scholarship and community engagement opportunities. The career development program encouraged me to network and take advantage of programs that have helped me acquire new skills.”

Arroyo is one shining example of how Dominican’s efforts and interventions can ensure retention and have other benefits. Arroyo is also helping other students on campus as a peer mentor in Estrellas, a program designed to get freshmen acclimated to the college experience.

Another key implementation to ensure persistence has been Dominican’s collaboration with the platform NowPow, which connects commuting students with community-based resources such as mental health and financial assistance and food shelters.

“Not only are we able to ask students what their challenges are, but NowPow allows us to go into the community,” Price says, highlighting Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. “We can get so specific that if you tell me your neighborhood, we can craft supports. We can pull resources that are within walking distance of the students’ home, and then spit it out to them in 12 different languages, so their families can utilize those resources. It has helped us be more effective in resolving matters, not just giving lip service to it.”

Those initiatives and interventions are just a few of the endeavors that have helped Dominican “walk the walk” as Price says, by embracing the concept of social mobility and their mission as a university. He stresses the importance of other higher education institutions to not just talk the talk when it comes to helping students in need.

“The concept is really higher education being this engine for mobility, moving people from low economic status and means to being able to take care of themselves and their family,” he says. “There are a whole lot of barriers that have to be resolved and understood. Colleges, we know that we know a lot, but we don’t know everything. We can learn a lot from a high school partners and community-based organizations.”