Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dominican University - We're Doing Something Right

In my recent CNN piece, I wrote about my university with both pride and realism. We are a relatively low-cost private school that does some things exceptionally well. Those things that we do well cost money, though. I wrote:
The Pell Institute's publication "Moving Beyond Access: College Success For Low-Income, First-Generation Students" lists advising, tutoring, mentoring, and intense interaction in the classroom as among the key features necessary to retain first-generation students. In other words, it's not enough just to help students get into an affordable college. Once accepted, we have to help them succeed. I've seen advising, special programs and small classes work wonders at Dominican University, where I teach, and we're just one of many student-oriented universities that provide great supports for students who need it. But such programs and low student-to-faculty ratios cost money, and across the country, cost-cutting is making it harder for such students to thrive.
In an original draft, I received some pushback from my editor for seeming too promotional, so I added the vague "we're just one of many ..." clause. Since the theme of the piece is "quality matters" not "Dominican is great," I didn't argue, but I had the sense that we really are pretty good at Dominican and that it's not an accident.

My Dean saw my CNN piece and sent me an essay by education reformer Michael Danneberg (his bio) that specifically praises Dominican for our graduation rate. Graduation rates cannot be compared just by numbers, of course, because they have to be normed against expectations. High achieving highschool students are, obviously, more likely to graduate. According to Danneberg, "Dominican has the highest completion rate of similar colleges nationwide that serve similar students with similar levels of academic preparation."

That's pretty exciting and is also news to me. We have wonderful students and I knew we were crushing the expected graduation rate (normed for wealth, race, first-generation, etc.), but not to this extent. Here's the whole section from in which Danneberg compares us to a rival school (sorry St. Xavier) that is not doing so well: Dannenberg writes, speculating about where a hypothetical Midwestern philanthropist should give his or her money [my emphasis]:
Our Midwestern philanthropist should consider contributing scholarship aid forundocumented and other needy students only to needy individual colleges and universities that make a “meaningful commitment to diversity” and education equity. In higher education, that means schools that serve minority and working class students and gets them through — to degree completion in comparable numbers.
It just so happens there’s a great example of such a school in the Chicago area and a nearby example of a not-so-great school when it comes to educational equity.
Both Dominican University and Saint Xavier University are pretty good non-profit, private colleges when it comes to access and enrollment of students from low-income and working class families. But check out Dominican’s completion rate as compared to Saint Xavier’s. Not only is Dominican higher, but there’s virtually no education equity gap between white and underrepresented minority students. In fact, Dominican has the highest completion rate of similar colleges nationwide that serve similar students with similar levels of academic preparation.
Our philanthropist, all education philanthropists, should consider giving to Dominican University and similar schools doing a relatively good job on educational equity. And in the process they should challenge nearby Saint Xavier University and similar schools to do a better job.

So how is this happening? I have some guesses.

We have a shield!
First, our students are great. But I assume that our peers also have great students, though perhaps some aspect of the admissions process comes into play. There could be some micro-demographic that shapes outcomes.

Second, we have robust systems that create links between advising, tutoring (academic enrichment), student services of all sorts (under the Dean of Students) and faculty. People do fail at Dominican, but no one falls through the cracks unnoticed. We notice. We intervene. We often succeed in helping people get back on track.

Third, as a professor, I can say that since my first day on campus, I've been inculcated in a culture based on "relationship-centered" teaching. That doesn't mean easy, but it does mean treating each student with respect and the attention they deserve.

Fourth, we have small classes and only teach 3 per term, not 4 or 5. That costs money, of course. It's money well spent according to these outcomes.

Fifth, we have great leadership, from our President on down. Here's a piece I wrote last summer about her decision to make Dominican a leader in educating undocumented students. She has a fine sense of the balance of mission and business. I don't always agree with her (no one should every always agree with their leaders!), but I do trust her.

At any rate, I'm thrilled to have the things we do well noticed by an outsider. Dear Anonymous Midwestern Philanthropists - we're ready for you to fund us!