At the Higher Education Summit recently held at the White House, President Obama announced a call to action to increase college opportunities for all, especially low-income and first time college students. Public colleges across the country have since pledged to make the commitments the President called for. As a private institution, Mills College was not effected by these initiatives. However, much of what the public schools pledged to do are items Mills already has under consideration, or are currently being developed, according to Brian O’Rourke, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Mills.
“There were some new initiatives and there was a lot of new funding involved with what was referenced [by the President],” O’Rourke said. “It just wasn’t necessarily this broad sweeping change.”
As a collective, collegiate leaders at the Higher Education Summit agreed to more than 100 commitments to take new action in four key areas critical to increasing college access and success, according to the White House website.
One such area is to connect low-income students to colleges that are right for them, as well as ensuring that they graduate. At Mills, the building blocks to support low income students through college to graduation have already been developed. Every year, Mills enrolls a very high number of Pell Grant eligible students, who have the highest need. A Pell Grant is government funded aid awarded to eligible undergraduate students based on their financial need, attendance, and academic status (full or part time); the Pell Grant does not have to be repaid. Data has shown that Mills’ enrollment of Pell eligible students is consistently over 35 percent, in some years over 40 percent, according to O’Rourke.
“What we are proud of is we are [also] graduating those students at a rate significantly higher than the national average,” O’Rourke said.
Mills is also currently developing a retention predictor score. The new scoring system, currently in the data collection phase, will help Mills predict if a student will succeed and graduate. Ultimately the scoring system is not intended to increase exclusivity at Mills by blocking low ranking students out, but instead to help students see what they need to do to get their score up and succeed at Mills.
“I want to make sure the data is telling us what support we need to provide,” O’Rourke said. “We have selectivity to our process that sets students up for success.”
Another key area from the summit was the commitment to increase the number of students preparing for college through programs that encourage and help students prepare for college as early as elementary school. Mills is considering a few options in this area. As part of the strategic plan, Mills is looking at collaborating with high school districts and other colleges in an effort to “cast a wider net,” according to O’Rourke, which is another area in which Mills is ahead of Obama’s call to action.
One way Mills is achieving this is through programs like College Track, a national college completion non-profit that enables students from under-served communities to graduate from college by guiding students from the summer before ninth grade through their college graduation. Last year Mills reaffirmed their formal commitment to College Track, the first private school in the nation to do so, according to O’Rourke. The program is already producing results: the first College Track student is currently a first-year at Mills.
“Our hope is that we will enroll more students this upcoming year,” O’Rourke said, “and continue to develop that relationship.”
The college has also entered into an agreement with other programs similar to College Track and is holding preliminary conversations for opportunities to formally partner with high schools, districts and community colleges, according to O’Rourke.
Obama’s initiative also called for leveling the playing field in college advising. Often low-income students are further disadvantaged when entering college due to lack of funding for counselors and extra advising at their schools. Participants at the summit committed to increasing additional resources like school counselors and summer preparation programs.
Mills currently has two programs in place that address this growing need of additional support for first-time and low-income college students. The Summer Academic Workshop [SAW], is a four-week residential program designed for first-generation college students and students of color, providing them with a strict transition into college while also developing relationships for continued community support.
“The summer academic workshop takes a small core of students and really focuses on the study skills and the college acclimation information that they need to help set them up for success,” O’Rourke said.
Mills also offers counseling and psychological services to all their students, including 8 counseling sessions each academic year free of charge. The option for free counseling services allows students a safe space to talk about their transition into a four-year college.
The fourth and final key area detailed at the summit is to strengthen remediation to help academically underprepared students progress to get through and complete college. While helping get students to college is valuable, helping them succeed and graduate is the key to a successful middle class.
Mills has a number of early intervention techniques to help students succeed and ultimately graduate. One of these techniques is the Academic Warning, which alerts the student, professor, advisor and counselor of a bump in a student’s road to success. Academic warnings require immediate responses from all parties and an appointment with an academic advisor.
“Its amazing how much information we are able to glean from faculty advisory appointments,” O’Rourke said. “Collectively [we] share that information to see what we can do to make sure that we give every student the opportunity to persist here.”
Though Obama’s summit didn’t spur any “global change,” according to O’Rourke, it helped solidify the initiative Mills has taken on its own to help all students succeed.
“We really want to make sure we are admitting students that we believe can do the work and persist,” he said, “and then when they are here, give them every opportunity to do so.”