PORTLAND, MAINE — 10/6/14 — A woman walks across the University of Southern Maine Portland campus on Monday. USM is planning to cut 50 faculty positions and two programs in an effort to eliminate $6 million from its budget. Troy R. Bennett | BDN
By: Tyler Blint-Welsh
Growing up, Amber realized she would one day need a college degree to avoid the life of economic hardship that had torn apart her family.
Neither of her parents went to college, she said, and they struggled to find work. It meant the family spent about half of her senior year of high school in Aroostook County with no electricity and little food. Because of the instability, she was sent to a foster home near Houlton, where she lived for more than a year before enrolling at the University of Maine at Presque Isle in 2015.
Amber, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, was able to take tuition-free classes under a waiver from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services available to students in foster care, and she decided to study to become a journalist. But financial and mental health struggles got in her way, and within a year she dropped out.
The University of Maine System has attempted to raise graduation rates for years, especially for students like Amber who come from low-income backgrounds and have parents without college degrees. But most campuses have struggled to ensure students complete their degrees.
Years of unsuccessful interventions and limited resources have made it difficult for the universities to improve the graduation rates of students who may come to campus unprepared for the academic and emotional adjustment to college, according to interviews with students, university staff and education experts.
“It’s a constant effort and is absolutely something we’re committed to doing better at and continuing to get better at,” said Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for the University of Maine System.
In Maine, the issue has particular importance given the number of people venturing out to be the first in their families to go to college.
Between 2014 and 2016, about 44 percent of all new enrollees at University of Maine System schools came from homes where their parents didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. The national average was 34 percent in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
Those who are the first in their family to attend college are unlikely to finish, even if they come from families of means. Nationally, about 25 percent of first-generation students not considered low-income, who enrolled in the fall of 2003, earned a bachelor’s degree in six years. Just 10.9 percent of students considered both first-generation and low-income — meaning their family earned less than $25,000 — graduated in that timeframe, according to the Pell Institute.
There isn’t a reliable statewide figure for Maine, but education experts say the statistics here are likely similar to the nation’s. The lack of consistent information on first-generation students’ graduation rates prompted a 2013 law change to require public colleges to track them.
For Maine students who come from K-12 public schools that overcome the odds to get them into college, dropping out represents a great loss of ambition, time, energy and money. Failing to graduate sets students back financially as well as psychologically — in many cases meaning they retain a lingering belief that they can’t succeed in a college environment.
Nationwide, the schools that have improved graduation rates among their most vulnerable students have focused intensely on advising and peer support, backed by technological innovation, showing that students who come from more challenging backgrounds can succeed when they receive the right assistance at the right time.
Stagnant graduation rates
Overall graduation rates at University of Maine System schools have been largely flat for well over a decade.
Only the University of Maine at Farmington and the University of Maine in Orono posted graduation rates of more than 50 percent between 2002 and 2016, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
The University of Maine at Augusta, the University of Maine at Machias and the University of Maine at Fort Kent have seen graduation rates decline over the same span.
Many campuses are piloting programs, or have had programs in place for years, to raise graduation rates, but their impact is not always clear:
University of Maine at Farmington
The school, which between 2002 and 2016 had the university system’s highest average graduation rate at 58.1 percent, offers the Johnson Scholars program as one way to help first-generation students, said Lynn Ploof-Davis, the program’s director. Johnson Scholars is among an array of federally funded programs, known as TRIO programs, aimed at helping disadvantaged students complete college.
Serving 180 of nearly 1,800 students at a yearly cost of $285,000, Johnson Scholars matches participating students with peer mentors who are trained to identify when students are struggling and to intervene, such as by going with the student to a professor’s office to schedule an office hours meeting. About two-thirds of the participants are low-income, first-generation students.
Over the last two years, 85 percent of students in the program enrolled in their third semester of college, a key indicator of whether a student will eventually graduate, Ploof-Davis said. Their graduation rates are not yet available, however.
Upward Bound, another TRIO program aimed at exposing high schoolers to higher education and helping with the high school-to-college transition, serves 139 prospective Farmington students annually. About 65 percent of students who participated in Upward Bound graduated within the six years ending with 2017, Ploof-Davis said.
Despite the small numbers, the federal programs make a difference because they serve the students most at risk of dropping out, she said.
“Everytime I hear, ‘We have to make it better for all Maine students,’ it makes me scream sometimes,” she said. “I feel like TRIO programs work because they focus on the students that need them the most.”
University of Maine at Augusta
At other schools, there is little evidence that the programs have helped a significant number of students graduate.
At the University of Maine at Augusta, where the student body was 48-percent first generation in 2016, Dean of Students Sheri Fraser pointed to the federally funded Student Support Services program, has been available to students at the school for more than 30 years, as an example of efforts to boost graduation rates. (It’s the same program as Farmington’s Johnson Scholars but with a different name.)
Of the 360 students served annually, 18 percent graduated in the six years between 2010 and 2016, compared with the overall student body graduation rate of 11.9 percent, according to data provided by Fraser.
She also pointed to a pilot initiative, the class steward program, that makes mentors available to students for courses that have been traditionally difficult, but it is not yet possible to determine the effect on retention and graduation rates.
But students appear to be earning higher grades in the 16 courses with class stewards. Sixty-four percent earned between a C- and an A in the spring 2017 semester, compared with 54 percent in the same courses between 2014 and 2016, before class stewards were offered, according to the university.
When examining the university’s graduation rates, Fraser said, it’s important to remember that the school serves a high proportion of non-traditional students, such as adults returning to college later in life. Graduation rates collected by the federal government only account for people who are first-time students, a definition just 6 percent of students in Augusta met in 2016.
Other students may not even be aiming to complete a degree, Fraser said. Or, if they are, they might be doing so with the understanding that it will take longer than four or six years because of their other responsibilities, which could include full-time jobs or trying to raise their families.
University of Southern Maine
The University of Southern Maine recently made changes to personalize its advising strategies, said Elizabeth Higgins, the director of academic advising, but it’s too early to tell if the effort will lead to higher graduation rates long term.
Each of the nearly 1,500 incoming students now participate in a 90-minute one-on-one session with their advisers during the summer to better prepare them for what they’ll face when the semester begins.
The number of students who failed to attend school in the fall after enrolling, a phenomenon called “summer melt,” declined between 2015 and 2016, she said.
Many students start college unprepared in part because of shortcomings in the K-12 public education system, said J. Duke Albanese, who served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Education from 1996 to 2003.
To bridge the gap, some colleges offer remedial courses, but it doesn’t appear the strategy is paying off as a retention strategy. Of the 283 students on average who enrolled in remedial courses each fall between 2012 and 2014 within the University of Maine System, 35 percent of them dropped out by the following year.
“It wasn’t that the colleges and universities weren’t trying. It was that a lot of that approach wasn’t working,” said Albanese. “But I know they’re putting way more resources to this, and I think the colleges and universities are saying, ‘Look, we’re taking the students in, and it’s our job to follow them to success.’”
Academic support is one part of the reform equation, Albanese said, but addressing the stark financial realities for many students is equally important.
Campuses across the University of Maine System froze tuition for six years before slightly raising rates this fall. And, starting next fall, the universities in Presque Isle, Fort Kent, Augusta and Machias will cover the cost of low-income students’ tuition and fees not covered by their federal Pell grant.
Free tuition will be helpful to some students, said Kristen Wells, former executive director of the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative, which offers mentoring and scholarships to students from Aroostook County. But for many others it won’t address other equally pressing needs.
“It’s not actually the cost of college that’s the biggest challenge. It’s the cost of life,” she said. “Transportation and food, those are the two biggest ones, and housing as well if they’re not living at home. To be able to balance work, life and school is where the financial burden really kicks in.”
‘A lot of people had a lot of faith in me’
For students like Amber, who come from families without college experience, working through seemingly simple issues, such as securing financial aid or seeking academic help, can be significantly more difficult, Wells said.
Despite working about 20 hours a week at a local grocery store, Amber said she struggled to pay her rent and electricity on top of school expenses, which included textbooks and supplies. Her job also meant she no longer had time to travel to Houlton for weekly therapy sessions, making her anxiety and depression worse.
And though her adviser at the University of Maine at Presque Isle was helpful when she needed to switch classes, Amber said, she didn’t know where to turn, beyond traditional tutoring, when she began to struggle with her schoolwork. She learned too late about extra assistance available to first-generation students on campus.
After the spring 2017 semester, Amber’s grade point average fell below the threshold required to continue receiving her tuition waiver. Unable to afford the $3,420 in tuition payments, she dropped out.
She plans to re-enroll once she saves up enough money, but she said she can’t help but feel like a failure.
“With me being one of the first in my family to actually go to college and have a better chance of graduation, a lot of people had a lot of faith in me. Knowing that I’d have to take some time off made me feel like I’d disappointed them all,” she said.
The financial consequences of not finishing school can last a lifetime.
Students in Maine, whether they graduate or not, leave college with an average of $31,000 in debt, the sixth highest average in the nation, according to Educate Maine.
As many as 90 percent of all student loan defaults in Maine come from the more than 180,000 Mainers who started college but didn’t finish their degree, according to the Finance Authority of Maine, indicating that, for the most at-risk students, an unsuccessful attempt at college could result in years of unpayable debt.
A model for success
Georgia State University in Atlanta offers a model for how other universities can help low-income and first-generation students through college, said Leah Austin, vice president of programs at the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta.
The university’s student body was 40-percent first generation and 51-percent Pell-eligible in 2016. To boost graduation rates, the university took a series of steps: They included implementing an advanced predictive analytics platformto identify struggling students and a supplemental instruction program similar to the class steward program the University of Maine at Augusta is piloting.
Each school in the University of Maine System is also currently working to install a predictive analytics platform to better inform advisers, but full implementation is likely years away.
Timothy Renick, who oversees the academic programs at Georgia State, said the analytics platform, which cost around $100,000, allowed the school to identify the degree paths incoming students would be most likely to succeed in based on their academic profile.
It also created a system of more than 700 alerts advisers receive if students do something to jeopardize their chance of graduating on time, such as being on track to earn a C-minus in a class in which successful graduates typically earn a B-plus.
Between October 2015 and October 2016, the university estimated that students met with their advisers four times as often as before the launch of the predictive analytics program, helping to decrease the time necessary to graduate by about half a semester. It collectively saved students about $12 million in tuition, Renick said.
The supplemental instruction program is available in more than 200 courses with traditionally high rates of students earning D’s or F’s, and pairs freshmen and sophomores with peer mentors who have previously excelled in the courses. Students who have participated since its launch in 2005 have earned a grade point average almost half a point higher than students in the same course who did not participate, and they stayed in school at a 6-percent higher rate annually.
As a result, between 2003 and 2016, Georgia State saw the six-year graduation rate for first-generation and Pell-eligible students jump from just 32 percent to 54 percent, according to Renick. What’s more, first-generation and Pell-eligible students on campus graduated at a higher rate than their non-first-generation and non-Pell-eligible counterparts.
In a review of its efforts, Georgia State concluded that, for many students, the extra support was the difference between keeping or losing their Hope Scholarship, a full-tuition award provided to every Georgia resident enrolled with at least a 3.0 grade point average.
Of the students who were able to maintain their scholarship, graduation rates were above 60 percent. For those who couldn’t, the graduation rate plummeted to just 20 percent.
“If you’re going to admit students to your university, you have an obligation to make sure, at the very least, that you’re not the reason they don’t graduate,” Renick said. Institutions need to commit “to removing all the reasons why we prevent students from graduating because of our complicated and confusing bureaucracies, or because of our failure to deliver courses in an accessible and understandable fashion.”