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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Social Mobility Conference Draws Higher Ed Leaders to ODU

By Phil Walzer

A college degree can provide the ticket to the American Dream, elevating graduates from their family circumstances. But that's not happening often enough.

So nearly 50 higher education leaders and student advocates from across the country gathered this week for Old Dominion University's first Social Mobility Symposium to brainstorm ways to propel more students to graduation.

Jim Wolfston, president and CEO of CollegeNET Inc., which sponsored the two-day symposium, summed up the problem: "There is a collision between the myth of America as the land of opportunity and the reality."

Another speaker, Wil Del Pilar, vice president of education policy and practice for the Education Trust, said, "We focused on getting people in (to college). We didn't focus on getting people through."

The gap, he warned, is widening between graduation rates for white and African-American students. Colleges also should be graduating more low-income and first-generation students, participants said.

Overcoming the roadblocks requires cooperation among diverse campus departments, including student engagement, academic affairs and financial aid, said Ellen Neufeldt, vice president of Old Dominion's Division of Student Engagement & Enrollment Services, which organized the two-day conference.

"Everybody has to be part of the conversation - from folks in the cafeteria to custodians in the residence halls," agreed Tyrone Bledsoe, founder and CEO of the Student African American Brotherhood, also known as Brother 2 Brother, which brings together men of color.

Students from Old Dominion's Brother 2 Brother chapter, which has nearly 100 members, spoke about their experiences and what pointed them toward success.

Senior Montae Taylor, the vice president of the group, said that in high school, "we did not learn how to actually learn." At Old Dominion, he frequented tutors "until I became a student all over again." Taylor, also the former president of the University's student NAACP chapter, said he found study partners through connections with student organizations.

"That's how I passed almost every single one of my classes," he said.

Taylor wasn't the only member of Brother 2 Brother who succeeded. Old Dominion President John R. Broderick noted that the average grade point average of freshmen in Brother 2 Brother rose 0.20 points from the fall 2016 semester to spring 2017.

Broderick also highlighted the results of the Mane Connect coaching program for freshmen. The proportion of participants who return for their sophomore year is 4 percent higher than the overall freshman rate.

Programs like Mane Connect are models for higher education, said Ellen Leher, associate vice president for client partnerships for InsideTrack. "They
provide one-on-one time for each of the students when they first get here to truly make a difference," she said.

Other suggestions to increase social mobility included:

  • Increase the availability of on-campus jobs. In addition to providing money, those jobs strengthen a student's connection with a university, teach "real-world job skills" and offer "close proximity to support services," said Kevin Kruger, president and CEO of NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
    But, Kruger said, student should not work more than 15 hours a week.
  • Increase the number of high school counselors, to reduce their student load, and provide them more training. "In a lot of high schools, it's like an assembly line," said Scott Jaschik, editor and founder of Inside Higher Ed.
    Del Pilar said he and other relatives had been steered away from attending college by a high school counselor in Los Angeles. He also said, "If you start seeing students in their junior year, you're way too late. We need to start embedding this in the third grade."
  • Providing access to food pantries, emergency grants and other supplemental help. "It's impossible to be successful in high school or college if you're skipping meals," Kruger said.

Participants advocated dozens of other strategies, including increasing interactions between colleges and pre-K through secondary schools, more closely analyzing data on student performance, and de-emphasizing standardized tests for college admission.

Other speakers included Robert Morse, chief data strategist for U.S. News & World Report; Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and David Burge, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and vice president for enrollment management at George Mason University.

Attendees agreed to continue brainstorming beyond the symposium to expand social mobility on their campuses and create momentum across the country.

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