2 Philadelphia-area colleges join forces to knock down barriers to equity
Students in good academic standing at West Chester University, a public institution in the Philadelphia suburbs, have been prevented from registering for classes over minor library and parking fines that they were unable to pay.
Because this could drive students to drop out over small sums of money, ending these so-called “hold policies” is part of a wider strategy at the university as it joins the Moon Shot for Equity consortium that is showing progress at leveling the higher ed playing field in other parts of the country.
West Chester is now working toward developing emergency micro-grants for students to help them get over financial humps and keeping moving forward on their academic tracks, President Christopher Fiorentino says.
“Our challenge is to have everybody on campus understand how we have to meet students where they are and work with them to get them to where they need to be,” Fiorentino says. “We have to work with our partners to identify and eliminate the impediments to students successfully completing a degree as fast possible and at the lowest possible cost.”
West Chester is teaming up with nearby Delaware County Community College on the moon shot project, a key part of which is simplifying the pathways from high school to higher ed to graduation and employment.
The Moon Shot is based on 15 best practices for erasing equity gaps that have been curated by the education firm, EAB, a leader of the project.
Institutions participating in the project, which first launched in Wisconsin and was highlighted by University Business in November, are expected to build stronger relationships with their communities by partnering with local high schools and local business and community leaders to help more underserved students gain access to college.
West Chester and Delaware County Community College will be working to streamline the transfer process to ensure students aren’t losing credits when they switch institutions. The schools also plan to develop co-admissions policies, he says.
“Co-curricular activity maps” among the equity initiatives West Chester is developing as part of its wider equity strategy. These maps will help students better recognize their own interests, join the most promising activities and keep a record that will become part of their academic profile, Fiorentino says.
“These are the kinds of things we need to be doing to help students focus on their work and on thriving rather than facing all kinds of cultural, academic or community impediments,” he says. “It’s one thing to recruit students to a campus, it’s another thing to make sure they feel welcome.”
West Chester’s advisors will also pay special attention to students who arrive without a clear idea of what they will choose as their major. Helping these students sharpen their focus around a potential major will give them more structure in their academic program, which in turn makes them more likely to graduate and graduate more quickly, he says.
The university also plans to reform non-credit remedial and development courses that students are forced to take when they aren’t prepared for college-level work.
“This is the major challenge that public higher educations institutions need to focus on,” Fiorentino says. “It’s not acceptable for these gaps to exist and for us not to do anything in our power to make sure students are able to complete the program as quickly as possible and that they are prepared for what the challenges are going to be out there in the world.”
Is it working in Wisconsin?
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Carthage College embarked on the Moon Shot last fall. Those institutions have formed task forces to focus on transfer pathways, proactive advising, retention and emergency grants, and hold reform, says Tom Sugar, EAB’s vice president of partnerships.
The University of Wisconsin, Parkside, for example, removed 40 holds on allowing students to register for classes after EAB did an audit with the institution. The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, removed 33 holds and increased the threshold for a hold from $10 to $1,500. At the latter institution, some 500 students may have been retained due to the reforms, Sugar says.
And though all four institutions have articulation agreements, administrators are now digging into more granular data, such as how many credits students have left when they transfer. The institutions are now working to bolster the transfer system to better serve students who too often have to navigate the process on their own.
Diversity and inclusion expert Shaun Harper, a professor in the Rossier School of Education and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, is now working with Moon Shot institutions to provide equity-mindedness and consciousness-raising training for administrators, faculty and staff.
“For too long, higher education has put the onus on students of color and other underserved student populations to adapt and overcome instead of reforming institutional barriers that make their educational journey more arduous than it has to be,” Sugar says. “All of the schools that have joined the Moon Shot for Equity have committed to fixing those institutional impediments.”