Supporting student success should be top priority of universities

Dear University of Akron President Gary Miller:

Welcome to Akron, a great place to live for many reasons: its park-filled river valley, friendly residents and housing stock, over which a Goodyear Blimp regularly sails, that is both gorgeous and affordable. Also, we have a killer library system, art museum and performance venues.

And, of course, there’s the University of Akron.

Several recent publications on thriving small cities in America, including the book “Our Towns” by Deborah and James Fallows, cite the presence of a local university as a key ingredient. Nowhere is this truer than here.

But the past decade has been difficult. After a period of overly ambitious campus-wide renovations, the university has struggled financially. Many employees feel the response to the fiscal crisis by prior administrators and the board of trustees has been to knock out the supports many students need to succeed.

In light of your early actions and communications, the current temperature on campus is guarded optimism. Your recent “Principles for Planning” letter and “Affirming Our Promises” strategic plan indicate that we may finally have a leader as committed to the success of our students as most UA staff and faculty are.

According to the university’s website, approximately 24% of our students are first-generation college attendees. As an adjunct instructor in the English department, I’ve found it’s more than half in my freshman composition classes. Many of these students arrive on campus believing they are college-ready when, in fact, they are not.

Oh, it’s not that they aren’t smart and hard-working. They are that and more. I suspect students from inner-city school districts were passed along because they were bright and not disruptive.

And many rural communities do not have rich enough tax bases to fund college-prep academics. This is a problem for these students but also for UA, where fewer than half our students obtain a bachelor’s degree after eight years on the main campus. And it’s a problem for our community, because we need UA graduates to join Akron’s workforce. The stronger our workforce, the more likely businesses will locate and stay here.

What can be done to adequately support UA students so that most obtain a bachelor’s degree in a reasonable amount of time?

A lot more than we do now.

The Office of Multicultural Development (OMD) does many things to address these issues. They have their own opt-in orientation program that, along with the usual components, provides information on what supports are available. And perhaps most importantly, they have a peer-mentorship program.

Over 90% of the student mentors graduate.

OMD was once run by eight full-time staffers and one administrative assistant. But due to funding cuts, for the past several years there have only been two full-time staffers and one admin (last month a third staff member was hired). All OMD services, including the augmented orientations, have suffered as a result.

Again, due to funding cuts, the Writing Lab, which I require all my students to use, also has a skeletal staff compared to a decade ago. Nor does the Writing Lab have a dedicated director who, when it did, held instructional meetings on strategies to help students become effective writers — something needed in all professions.

The Help-a-Zip program allows faculty to refer students for whom they have any concerns, be it academic, personal, mental health or financial. This important safety net is staffed by one person.

When my eldest son went to the University of Michigan, he was automatically placed in their Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP), because he had graduated from an inner-city school. UM admissions also targets students from rural districts and first-gen college attendees for this program.

The CSP includes its own group of academic advisers, workshops and free tutoring for a variety of subjects, including math and foreign language, all of which my son took advantage. Three years after he graduated, he is still in touch with his CSP adviser.

North Central College in Illinois also actively supports first-gen students. As one student put it in a recent NPR story, “We don’t have anyone in our families to rely on to give us that advice [for figuring out college],” she says, “so we need some help from the broader community to help us to get on board.”

In workshops and lectures, NCC teaches first-gen students how to successfully navigate college. They also provide free meals — once a week for freshmen and once a month for sophomores — where students are joined by faculty who are also first-gen.

Students who participate in a majority of these events receive a $1,000 recurring scholarship.

The support systems in place at UA are whispers of what they should be, due to lack of revenue, not lack of will. Some of that revenue was cut by the state, but plenty more resulted from the runaway expansion plan, and resulting fiscal deficit, by your predecessor Luis Proenza.

President Scott Scarborough, hired to fix the deficit, made matters worse. No matter how poorly thought-out, both men’s whims enjoyed the rubber-stamping of the same board of trustees.

We live in an era of economic disparity unseen since the Gilded Age. UA exists to educate students and yet we cannot fund the most basic supports for our students. That your two aforementioned predecessors receive a combined total of $633,000 a year from the university’s coffers — for which they provide nothing of value — is immoral. Those who permitted such unabashed plundering should go.

The challenge for you to make UA again work for its most important constituency, our students, is great. So please know that if you continue to take appropriate measures to promote academic excellence for all students, you will enjoy the strong support of all those who work with UA’s students. For your success will be everyone’s success.

Godspeed —

Holly Christensen

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 17, 2019.

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