Rates among students of color rank at top of Minn. State system
by NATHANIEL NELSON
Winona is home to multiple higher education institutions and, according to newly released data, one is considered one of the best public universities in the state –– overall graduation and re-enrollment rates at Winona State University (WSU) are higher than they have ever been before and the school now ranks at the top of the Minnesota State college system in all categories –– including graduation rates among students of color. Through a shift to focus on disenfranchised and underrepresented student groups, WSU has been slowly working to close the achievement gap and strengthen its already strong statistics.
“I like to say that Winona State University is best in class,” said Denise McDowell, vice president of enrollment management and student life.
The hallmark is a recent development for WSU, McDowell explained. While the school has always been ranked well in the Minnesota State system, it was only a few years ago that the university took over the top spot.
According to statistics provided by WSU, the university’s graduation rate for students who graduate within six years was 63.8 percent for the 2018 graduate class, and its second-year retention rate was 76.1 percent –– higher than any college in the system for the same time frame, McDowell said. Overall, the Minnesota State system’s graduation rate was 50.4 percent and its retention rate was 72.3 percent.
The high performance is even more apparent for students of color. For 2018, WSU had a graduation rate of 49.6 percent for students of color –– well above the state system’s average of 33.8 percent.
Part of this improvement has stemmed from WSU’s renewed devotion to improving the campus climate, particularly for underrepresented students and those who are struggling.
“One of the things we’ve been working on is being more preventative about our early intervention,” McDowell explained.
Early intervention, in this case, is more than just tutoring. While there are multiple tutoring and mentoring programs on campus, students don’t always just need help with their studies. For example, they may be missing class because of taking on two jobs to help pay for expenses or they may be having personal relationship problems that are taxing to their mental health and causing them to lapse in their studies. They also may have difficulty meeting the expectations of college –– not for lack of intellect, but just lack of experience.
“We often forget that higher education has a lot of nuances, and if you don’t understand the language, you can fall through the cracks,” McDowell said.
To combat this, there are a few programs and initiatives that have been put in place. TRIO student support services may not be a new program, having joined the campus in the late 1970s, but coupled with increased goals and collaboration across campus, the service has been thriving.
TRIO student support services is a federally funded program to assist low-income students, students with disabilities and first-generation students –– students who are the first in their families to attend college. Nhia Yang is the director of TRIO at WSU and explained that each year, the program assists 225 students with academic tutoring and financial literacy.
Every semester, students meet with program staff three times to check in on how things are going and figure out how or whether they need help.
“We get to know our students in a lot of ways, so they feel comfortable in opening up about their financial and personal difficulties and such,” Yang explained. “That helps us to be able to intervene if we need to.”
The program has stayed relatively the same at the university since its inception, aside from the growing requirements and standards set out for itself. Every five years, the program must apply for a grant through the state and, to stay competitive, the program goals have steadily increased over the years, with a large jump taking root this cycle.
“We recently changed our retention rate [goal] from 50 percent to 65 percent,” Yang said. “Because we raised the bar, we will have to be innovative and creative in ways that we can serve the same population.”
TRIO is one of several programs on campus that caters to students in need of assistance, McDowell explained, in addition to tutoring and mentoring programs, early-intervention programs and additional counseling from staff and advisors. It’s not a doubling of services, however, but instead a way for WSU to meet the needs of all of its students, she said.
“When we have more students on campus with more needs, you also use more resources,” McDowell explained.
Mental health has also been a large focus for the university in recent years. For instance, last year, WSU’s annual theme was on resilience, and multiple programs, initiatives and events were built around building up students’ resilience and mental health.
There has also been a focus from staff on student mental health, McDowell stated. She explained that she often walks around campus and sees students sitting alone, and the first question she thinks of is whether they are alone by choice –– to relax or study –– or by chance.
“We’ve been really trying to promote the student experience. There’s too much happening on our campus for it to be ignored,” McDowell explained.
For students of color, that can be even more of a focus, she said.
Jonathan Locust, the vice president of inclusion and diversity at WSU, has been hard at work preparing incoming students of color for their college career. During welcome week and summer registration, he is out and about, talking with students and letting them know about the Inclusion and Diversity Office so they know where they can turn when they need help.
“Our goal is to make sure that our students who are coming in have multiple connection points,” Locust explained. “The more connection points the student can have, if something goes wrong or something does not go as planned, they have multiple people to talk to.”
According to Locust, one of the most important parts of raising the university’s success rates is working directly with students from disenfranchised groups, like students of color, exchange students, low-income students and first-generation college attendees.
“If you look at underrepresented groups, their graduation rates and retention rates are always lower than white students,” Locust explained. “If the goal is to raise the university graduation and retention rate, you target the population that has the lowest rate. As their rate increases, the overall rate increases.”
The Inclusion and Diversity Office acts as a space for students of color and those from other countries to come to when they are having trouble. Locust explained that for some students, WSU can be the most diverse place they’ve been, while for others, it is the least, and students need people with whom they can relate to help them through their schooling.
“One of the things we do for students is to make sure they have a safe space regardless of how they identify or how they see themselves,” Locust said. “For them to be able to go in a space and be able to recognize and see people that look like them and identify with them, and speak a language that is common to them … students really enjoy that.”
The office also examines at student data and analyses to see how they can best assist students in school. For example, a male Latinx student who is participating in a mentoring program and a sports club may be 15 percent more likely to return for his second year and, in that case, Locust will recommend they sign up for those programs.
The goal, in turn, is to build on the success WSU has had in recent years, keeping underrepresented students engaged in the campus community and making them want to continue through until graduation, explained McDowell.
In looking back over the last five years, the university’s graduation and retention rates for minority students have fluctuated –– based in part on the number of minority students coming through the doors –– but they have remained at or above the Minnesota System average since at least 2013.
Locust explained that president Scott Olson and other administrators have been seeking ways to make the campus more comforting and inclusive, which is the direction that WSU must continue to keep thriving –– in the next few years, the effects of current programming and efforts will begin to be seen.
“We can all look at census data and see that not only the state of Minnesota is getting more diverse, it’s happening across the nation, as well,” Locust said. “You have to make sure the place is welcoming for staff, students and community members of color so we can always keep our doors open.”