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University of Central Missouri
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Warrensburg, MO 64093
Phone: 660-543-4640
Fax: 660-543-4943


St. Louis ‘Degrees with Less Debt’ Study Recognizes UCM for Aiding At-Risk Students 

Contact: Jeff Murphy
WARRENSBURG, MO (May 1, 2017) – Using data analytics to proactively assist students in need, offering student support programs, peer coaching, and an innovative “15 to Finish” initiative are among reasons a new St. Louis area study  points to the University of Central Missouri as a school that’s getting it right in helping students who are underrepresented in higher education.

The study, “Degrees with Less Debt: Effective Higher Education Strategies for Underrepresented Student Populations,” was released Friday, April 28. The advocacy group St. Louis Graduates (STLG) commissioned the report by the Illinois Education Research Council (IERC), and it lists UCM among five institutions that graduate more students than predicted with less debt. Others recognized were Maryville University and Webster University in  St. Louis; Missouri State University, Springfield; and Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau. The final report announcement event, “Stand with Students: Leveraging Leadership to Support Postsecondary Success,” was conducted by STLG in cooperation with the St. Louis Regional Chamber. Karen Goos, UCM assistant vice provost for enrollment management at UCM, attended the event.

The five universities named in the study were selected in a process that considered 20 four-year institutions where St. Louis area high school graduates are likely to pursue their higher education. Seventeen were from Missouri and three from Illinois. In determining which schools stood out, an STLG task force contributed feedback used to develop a success metric based on the median student debt at graduation and six-year actual versus predicted graduation rates for institutions with similar contexts. It also considered the number of students of color, how many students qualified for need-based financial aid, and the number of first generation students at each school. Only institutions with at least 25 percent Pell recipients and at least 50 percent graduation rates were included.

Once these five institutions were selected, the second phase of the study involved interviews with three to five administrators from areas such as academic and student affairs, enrollment management, and financial aid, and four to eight underrepresented students from each of the highest-ranking universities. The goal was to determine successful practices and strategies for helping underrepresented students graduate in six years or less with lower debt.

 Five themes emerged from the qualitative data that support the graduation and degree with less debt goals. Overall university culture was noted in two of the themes: University Leadership and Coordinated, Caring Community.  Other themes evident from the data were Early College Experience, Flexible and Sufficient Financial Aid, and Just-in-Time Academic Support.

 “One of the key findings of the report is the importance of university leadership committed to diversity, equity and inclusion,” principal investigator Janet K. Holt, Ph.D., executive director of the IERC, noted in a STLG blog following release of the study. “Presidents lead in creating a campus culture that values, supports and engages underrepresented students. Through interactions with their campus presidents and other campus leaders, students at the five institutions were forming a stronger bond to their universities.”

Asked by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to comment on the study, UCM President Chuck Ambrose acknowledged that it is an honor and motivation for the university to be recognized for assisting students who are underrepresented in higher education. This is particularly true at a time when state funding is creating challenges in the student services area.

He also told the Post-Dispatch, “It’s weighed heavily on me as president to have a sense of this generation’s struggle up against issues of class and race, and to think here we are in 2017 and on many days they feel the same kind of weight of oppression that perhaps my generation thought we released ourselves from in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

The president commends the efforts of many people campus wide who contribute to positive initiatives at UCM that were cited in the study, and are key to the success of the underrepresented at-risk students. “All of these initiatives come together under UCM’s Learning to a Greater Degree Contract for Completion and contribute to our campus commitment to access and affordability, college completion, and student success for all students,” Ambrose said.

 Among such efforts are pre-enrollment risk profiles and as-needed mentoring and outreach support. Risk profiles help target support to students most in need.

“Their (UCM’s) goal is to be proactive, rather than reactive so students get supports early on, before ending up on academic probation or suspension,” the report notes.

The university’s longstanding suspension waiver program, which has twice been awarded a Lee Noel-Randi Levitz Retention Excellence Award, also was recognized. In this program, the university waives suspension of 30 to 40 students each semester who have demonstrated ability but whose performance would have led to suspension. A recovery plan is initiated and weekly meetings are held with the student to help them get back on track academically.  

UCM is committed to helping students cross the education finish line faster and with less debt. While Complete College America was reporting that only half of the students at four-year institutions are taking 15 or more credits per fall and spring semester, the amount needed to stay on track to graduate in four years, UCM in 2013 was the first institution in the state to announce the innovative 15-to-Finish program. To incentivize graduation in four years, the university awards $1,000 to eligible students who take 15 credit hours per semester to apply to their senior year of courses. This initiative has led to an increase in students’ average semester course hours since its inception.

To ensure students get the support they need for success in college, the university offers the Advantage Program in the Department of Academic Enrichment. This is for entering probationary students and provides personal learning plans, tutoring, study skills assistance, and service learning opportunities. The department also offers TRIO programs that provide access to additional student resources, including lower-advisor-to-student ratios, financial literacy workshops, and a college orientation course.

The study notes that nationwide 42 percent of all students and 55 percent of Pell recipients come to college unprepared for subjects that often include mathematics and English, and may need to take non-credit remedial courses.  Led by Charlene Atkins in Academic Enrichment, the university has found an alternative through corequisite remediation. This allows a student to enroll in both the remedial course and in the associated gateway course in the same semester.  UCM has used this program for math during the past two years, and expanded it in fall 2017 to allow students enrolled in general education math to also be enrolled in a supplemental lab experience and tutoring.

 Other opportunities to help students succeed include Academic Resource Coaches. These individuals are student outreach specialists assigned to support students in their residence halls, and can be contacted by someone who may know a student who needs assistance. UCM also offers the Mentoring Advocacy and Peer Support (MAPS) program that was initially available to underrepresented students but has been expanded to serve all students. MAPS provides individualized advocacy, academic resources, and social support to promote student success.

These are just a few of many opportunities that are characteristic of the university’s focus on student success, and have contributed to recognition through the STLG-commissioned study, according to Mike Godard,  vice provost for enrollment management.

“Being recognized as one of the top five schools in this study demonstrates our campus commitment to access, affordability. and student success for all students,” he said. “UCM's contract for completion is successfully leading students to degrees with less debt. Our goal is to ensure students have an opportunity to receive a quality education from a campus community who truly cares about their success.