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US Universities Working Together to Help Poor Students


Students walk outside at Michigan State University, one of 11 member institutions of the University Innovation Alliance.

Michigan State University has long worked with and competed against other colleges and universities in the United States.

Michigan State, a public research university, often works on joint research projects with other schools. It also belongs to the college sports conference called ‘the Big Ten,’ which actually has 14 member institutions.

Yet in the world of higher education, competition can seem more common than schools working together. That is the opinion of Kristen Renn, a professor of higher education at Michigan State. She says that all of the over 4,000 colleges and universities across the country have different goals to meet.

Unlike governments in some countries, the U.S. federal government does not completely organize higher education. Renn notes that some states even have trouble organizing the public schools they are supposed to operate. Every college and university competes for students, as well as the best teachers and money for research programs.

Kristen Renn, professor of higher education at Michigan State University.
Kristen Renn, professor of higher education at Michigan State University.

But one thing almost every institution has in common, Renn says, is the difficulty they face in serving low-income and first generation students.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that low-income college students are less likely to complete their study programs than other students. In 2015, the center reported that just about 16 percent of the poorest students were able to graduate college. By comparison, about 60 percent of the wealthiest students graduated.

Renn says it was only natural that the leaders of Michigan State and ten other universities discussed this issue when they met in 2014. The 11 schools are spread across the United States and serve different populations and needs. But their leaders all saw improving graduation rates for all students as the biggest problem facing U.S. higher education.

So the group created an organization for sharing information related to this problem. It is called the University Innovation Alliance, or UIA.

Its main goal is to get 68,000 more students at the member institutions to graduate by 2025, with at least half of those students being low-income. The 11 schools now say their number of graduates has increased by over 7,200 in just three years. This includes an almost 25 percent increase in the number of low-income graduates.

How were they able to make this happen? Renn says it began with each university looking at its own situation and finding out what it had been doing right and what it had been doing wrong.

For example, before joining the UIA, academic advising at Michigan State mostly involved reacting to problems students faced after the problems had already arisen. Then school officials heard about a computer program that fellow UIA member Georgia State University was using.

This computer program follows decisions students make about their classes and the progress they are making in their studies. It then sends academic advisors messages whenever a student shows signs they are making mistakes or facing difficulties. That way the advisors can try to help students before the problems become too serious.

Michigan State began using the computer program. Renn says it has meant a world of difference.

“If I’m an academic adviser in chemistry and one of my students drops calculus in the middle of a semester, in previous, advising it was very difficult to identify those students,” she told VOA. “But currently, that student dropping a class would send an alert to the adviser, who then can contact the student and say ‘Why did you drop the class? Did you know this is required? Can we talk about what’s going on?’”

Michigan State has not only received useful information from its partners. It has also shared helpful information of its own, says Renn.

Her university began looking at how it communicated with students. The administration discovered that it was sending so many emails to students that they often overlooked ones with important information. So the school decided to greatly reduce the number of its messages to students, giving more attention to the important ones.

The University of Kansas began doing the same, says DeAngela Burns-Wallace. She is the university’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies.

She says Kansas shared information about its work-study programs with the other UIA members. Her school had been offering paid research jobs to undergraduate students so they could support themselves financially and develop an early interest in research.

Burns-Wallace notes that several other schools have begun to do the same. She says it is the free flow of information back and forth between institutions that makes the UIA program so successful.

“I have colleagues that are in financial aid or student affairs or research who can pick up the phone and have a colleague at 11 other institutions give immediate feedback on a project or … understand how the others have done it and maybe identify other opportunities,” she told VOA.

Bridget Burns is the executive director for the UIA. She says efforts like this have never been as successful because of the way American higher education is designed. For one thing, change does not come quickly to colleges and universities, especially large, public ones. This is not necessarily a bad thing, she argues. After all, it is important for institutions to direct much of their time and energy toward other responsibilities.

Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance.
Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance.

But, Burns notes, schools do need to change how they estimate the value of their efforts. Colleges and universities use a lot of different measurements when competing with one another. Yet these often pay more attention to the number of college applicants they deny, instead of noting how many they help, she says.

“There are rankings that measure all kinds of things,” she told VOA. “But how well you do for low income students has not historically been … highlighted. We know that progress is possible, that we can do better. But we need to actually create … rewards to highlight this kind of behavior.”

Burns hopes sharing the successes of the UIA schools will help other colleges and universities think more about their similarities. This includes the problems many of them face.

In the future, Burns does not just want other schools to join her organization just to belong to it. She wants them to learn from the UIA, create their own partnerships, and come up with even more improvements for all college students.

I’m ­Pete Musto. And I’m Alice Bryant.

Pete Musto reported this for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. How common is it for different universities in your country to work together? What have been the results of those partnerships? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

institution(s) – n. an established organization

incomen. money that is earned from work, investments, or business

graduatev. to earn a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

semestern. one of two usually 18-week periods that make up an academic year at a school or college

alertn. something, such as a message or loud sound, that tells people there is some danger or problem

colleague(s) – n. a person who works with you

feedbackn. helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance or product

applicant(s) – n. someone who formally asks for something, such as a job or admission to a college

highlight(ed) – v. to make or try to make people notice or be aware of someone or something

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