West Chester University will partner with Delaware County Community College through a national organization to close achievement gaps among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic student groups by 2030, the schools plan to announce Wednesday.
The nearly year-old “Moon Shot for Equity” initiative, overseen by EAB, a Washington-based education firm that works on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues on college campuses, requires colleges to employ 15 “best practices,” including proactive academic advising, community partnerships, and racial equity training for staff. It also will seek to add new avenues for adult learners, improve the transfer process between schools, and evaluate potentially harmful policies, such as preventing students from registering for new classes because they still owe money toward the previous semester.
West Chester officials say they already are doing much of what the initiative calls for, but the project will coordinate and expand those efforts and add technology to better track student progress and address problems more immediately.
“This is about changing the culture of the campus,” said Christopher Fiorentino, West Chester’s president. “When we bring students into this institution, whatever their background, whatever their level of preparation, we need to do everything in our power as a group of educators to move them toward a successful outcome.”
EAB has promised to create seven groups of two- and four-year colleges around the country to work together toward erasing equity gaps. West Chester and Delaware County Community College (DCCC), which sends more than 400 transfer students to West Chester annually, are the second group to be identified. The first, which started less than a year ago, is in Wisconsin, and EAB also on Wednesday will announce a third in the Cincinnati area.
“Imagine a world where students complete college instead of dropping out, where those most often left behind find success instead — we all benefit from that,” said Tom Sugar, EAB’s vice president for partnerships.
The pandemic has made the effort even more urgent, he said, noting its disproportional impact on students of color.
EAB is investing $25 million in the project over the next five years, offering discounted technology and consulting. Colleges are making investments, too. West Chester expects to kick in $3 million over five years and the community college $700,000. Schools also will seek philanthropic donations.
With 17,700 students, nearly 12% of them Black and 6% Latino, West Chester is the largest university in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education and has consistently posted the highest graduation and retention rates. Yet, about 80% of white students graduate in six years compared with about 57% of Black students and 67% of Latino students. Gaps persist at other state system universities, too. The system’s overall graduation rate is 40% for Black students and 48% for Latino students, compared with 65% for white students.
Rates also lag for students from lower-income families as identified by qualification for federal Pell grants. Seventy-one percent of Pell grant recipients graduate in six years at West Chester, compared with 77% overall.
West Chester also plans to look at gaps that may exist between men and women and among LGBTQ students and first-generation college students, said deputy provost Jeffery L. Osgood Jr.
It was Osgood who spotted an article about the Moon Shot effort in Wisconsin and proposed that West Chester get involved. The college for more than a decade has been admitting a larger percentage of applicants to broaden access and still maintaining graduation rates higher than national averages. But it was looking for ways to close achievement gaps.
“What we want to be known for is that it’s a place where all students are successful,” he said, “where we produce the same outcomes regardless of your background.”
Sugar said he was impressed when West Chester reached out.
“The level of enthusiasm, engagement, and commitment by the leadership there was just off the charts, as much as I’ve seen anywhere,” he said.
In addition to strong leadership, full implementation of the best practices and use of technology that allows for close monitoring of student progress and early intervention are keys to succeeding, Sugar said.
As part of the project, colleges will assess how welcoming their campuses are to diverse student populations. Fiorentino recalled hearing complaints when he became president about a heavier police presence at parties sponsored by a Black student group.
“Students were hugely offended by that and rightly so,” he said.
And faculty of color aren’t going to stay if they don’t feel welcome, he said.
“We need to understand these things before we can change them,” Fiorentino said.
West Chester and DCCC have been streamlining the transfer process. West Chester offers some third- and fourth-year degree programs at the community college because students indicated transportation was an issue, said L. Joy Gates Black, DCCC’s president. Last year, the schools signed a co-admission agreement, guaranteeing students who complete their first two years at the community college acceptance into West Chester with housing.
But Gates Black knows anecdotally that some students still don’t stay and graduate. She hopes through the new initiative, college officials can learn how many and why.
“It’s not something we have been as focused on as we should be,” she said.
“We have to look at our internal processes and procedures to find out if there are barriers to students’ success and what those look like,” she added.
She noted that nearly one-third of DCCC’s 19,000 students are single parents. Not all students receive the same support at home and may need more assistance from colleges. she said. At Delaware County, Black males have among the lowest retention rates, she said.
West Chester and DCCC plan to reach out to other community colleges and universities about joining the effort.
“We welcome any and all,” Osgood said.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.