Nights in Columbus

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

This was one of those weeks. Started in Miami on Sunday morning talking with the Council on State Governments on the new US Common Core Curriculum Standards that are going through in the US. Moved on to New Orleans, where I met at the AACRAO conference to discuss higher education ranking systems, and ended up in Columbus, Ohio, where I conducted a site visit of Ohio Dominican University and also keynoted at Columbus State Community College (CSCC) on student success. I’m tired.

But I’m also invigorated. On Friday morning, I had the pleasure to speak to 800 faculty and staff members at CSCC about student retention and persistence and what it takes to increase student success at their institution. As most know, improving graduation and/or transfer rates is not easy business. On paper, it doesn’t seem to difficult. In practice, not so much. Given the issues of institutional politics, history of prior efforts, dated policies, and an emerging clientele with more demands and perhaps less preparation than before, you must acknowledge that many of these professionals are saints.

But Columbus, Ohio, is an interesting microcosm of the higher education world. Let’s break it down. At its center is “The” Ohio State University (yes, the “The” is obnoxious as hell, and they should just stop doing it). But OSU is a great institution. I hear they play football, too (or is it that they are a football team that also does education?). Gordon Gee runs this 55k student place, and it truly is a wonderful institution. So, OSU is at the epicenter of Columbus, if not Ohio, higher education. But Columbus isn’t just about OSU. Beyond its center, Columbus hosts a plethora of institutions that are also working hard to meet the demands of postsecondary education and students of all ages and types in the area.

Near the Columbus airport, EPI is working with Ohio Dominican University, a small, private, Catholic institution that recently received a US Title III grant to help minority and low-income students succeed in college. It’s important to know that private institutions in the US are not all wealthy places like Harvard and other Ivy League institutions. Most of the private institutions are small (e.g., <5,000 students) and have small endowments. They struggle for money and for private investments from donors and philanthropists. It isn’t easy being private.

Ohio Dominican University, a liberal arts institution of about 2,000 students, has a history of serving a high percentage of students of color (about 25 percent) and those who are from the lower rungs of the economic ladder. They are not an inexpensive institution ($36k living on campus), but work hard to provide great, personal service for the price. This past year, they built a fabulous student center, complete with a state-of-the-art fitness/wellness center. And the Battelle Corporation has contributed to a new science center. These are the first new buildings in about 40 years at ODU.

The take away here is that this small, Catholic institution is bending over backwards to meet the needs of their student population. They created the START program (don’t ask what START stands for, but it makes sense), which will take 40 new lower-income recruits this summer for two weeks and indoctrinate and ready them for the fall semester. START students will continue meeting weekly throughout the year, with access to tutoring, mentoring, advising, and other services to help them navigate the college experience. I visited ODU last summer during their first START program and it showed great promise. I look forward to seeing what happens this year.

Today, I spoke at Columbus State Community College. A much different animal that ODU. CSCC enrolls over 28,000 students a year (with tuition hovering around the $2,400 mark for 30 credit hours) making it one of the larger community colleges in the United States. CSCC just began a student success effort in 2010, working to transform itself to graduate a higher percentage of students and also ensure that students are meeting his or her personal goals.

Now, I travel around the US and Canada talking about this stuff ad nauseum, it may seem. This is what I do. I get student retention. But there is something enlightening about walking onto a campus and seeing the lightbulbs turn on. I’m not talking just about instructional faculty, but other staff, including financial aid, student services and even maintenance and food services. During my follow-up breakout session, a Q&A with Moi, half the audience were support staff, including two people from the testing center and someone from print services. They get it–it takes a village–all hands on deck–to make this work. That’s why this initiative will work at CSCC. They get it, and that’s a much greater place to start.

CSCC is beginning to ask the tough questions about what they need to do to change the culture of their institutions—to make it more open to a diverse community, but also ensure that the students they admit—many who are first generation, low-income, and of color—can succeed. And this is the paradox—can you ensure success with students who have been brought up in a culture of little success? Yes, you can. But it takes effort. It takes commitment. And it takes leadership.

Like many institutions around the nation, both Ohio Dominican University and Columbus State Community College are welcoming new Presidents this summer. The trick is to ensure that these new leaders embrace student-centered policy development and push forward with the initiatives that have already started. This doesn’t all happen. But perhaps they’ll read this commentary.

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