Three Florida Universities Partnering To Increase Student Success

Author: Linda Jacobson

April 8, 2016

As a high school student in Venezuela, Alejandro Bolivar found himself fascinated by biology. So when his family followed his grandparents to the Tampa area, Bolivar applied to the University of South Florida (USF), where he is studying microbiology with the hope of eventually attending medical school.

It’s a goal he would not have been able to pursue without the financial assistance and support of the Latino Scholarship Program at the University of South Florida, a 25-year initiative that gives promising students the opportunity to attend college. Supporting the scholarship program is just one of the significant investments that Helios Education Foundation has made in ensuring that more first-generation students are able to attend college and graduate with the skills they need for a successful career.  

 “They believe in me,” Bolivar says, “and believe that I could not only use this money to get a good education and be part of the community, but also to represent the Latino community.” 

Helios Education Foundation has long supported programs that give Latino students the opportunity to be the first ones in their family to earn a college degree. In addition to providing a grant to the Latino Scholarship Program, it has also provided funds that give first generation, low-income and minority students financial aid…

Now, in an effort to further increase the number of first-generation, Latino students who enter college, graduate and become part of Florida’s workforce, Helios is investing in the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities. The consortium is a groundbreaking partnership between the state’s three largest metropolitan-area research universities—Florida International University in Miami, the University of Central Florida in Orlando and the University of South Florida in Tampa. Institutions that might normally be competing against each other for students and funding are instead joining efforts to give underserved students the support they need to be successful.

“If we combine our resources, we can drive the economy even more by offering opportunities to students,” says Michael Preston, the executive director of the consortium, which formed in 2014 after the presidents of the three universities realized how much their institutions have in common. “Now the presidents communicate a lot more; they get together to jointly advocate for the consortium. There is not another model where you have three universities in the same state working together in this capacity.”

In an example of this collaboration, the three institutions post STEM-related internship opportunities on one website, rather than each one featuring positions only in that  university’s metro area. This approach benefits students who might attend school in one city, but would be able to take an internship in another part of the state, perhaps closer to home. Use of the website, Preston says, has been at least six times higher than when the institutions run their own internship site. “Now students feel like they’ve got more options.”

The emphasis on career readiness—and a goal of increasing graduates’ salaries by 10 percent to an average of $39,072 by 2018—is just one of the consortium’s four focus areas. The other three are using predictive analytics to identify and provide support to students who are struggling to complete their degrees, creating high-tech pathways to monitor students’ progression, and providing targeted support through coaching, mentoring and other models of “enhanced advising.”

About 30 representatives from each institution meet regularly to share information and discover ways that they can collectively improve experiences and opportunities for students. Helios Education Foundation is supporting these professional development activities. 

The Benefits of Data Sharing

While universities don’t often share their data, the consortium institutions are operating with the belief that since they all serve students with similar demographics, they can better understand students’ backgrounds, their education and career goals, and the challenges they face in getting there.

The data-sharing arrangement, for example, will allow leaders to identify which courses, offered at all three institutions, are predictive of success in certain degree programs, Preston suggests. Then they can link those students to a support system and the additional resources they might need to do well in those courses.

“We have a population of students in need of different kinds of help,” he says. “There are a lot who need more than just a standard advising relationship.”

In another example, faculty members from the three institutions—representing five STEM areas—are currently working together on ways to improve the retention and graduation of students in those majors. Currently, research shows that about half of the students who enter a STEM program end up changing their major or not completing their degree. This “leaky pipeline,” as consortium leader Brittney Sears describes it, contributes to the lack of qualified employees for STEM careers—even though graduates in those careers can earn $14,000 more annually than those with other types of bachelor’s degrees. 

Creating an “onboarding” program for all freshmen and transfer students on using the scientific method in their coursework is one strategy the institutions will use to give students a strong foundation, Preston says. In what he calls a “natural fit,” Preston adds that it’s likely that the consortium will eventually expand to include two-year institutions in the three metro areas. 

Support for Graduation 

Another one of the consortium’s goals is to ensure that more students who are in college for the first time are graduating within six years—increasing the rate by four percentage points to 67 percent. The institutions also aim to increase the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded each year by 12 percent to a total of 34,250.

While Florida has one of the highest percentages of Latino students enrolled in postsecondary education, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the graduation rate still trails that of white students. Sharing lessons from the Latino Scholarship Program or other services focused on the needs of immigrant students, Preston says, can lead to creating the kind of support students need. “We have experience we can draw upon,” he says. 

The Latino Scholarship Program , for example, demonstrates many of the elements needed in order for students to graduate and move into a job in their field. As much as possible, students are paired with donors who are linked to the profession in which the students want to work. This aspect allows the college students not only to have a role model within the field, but also to gain real-world knowledge and to network with others in that profession. Those connections can sometimes even lead to job opportunities.

The Gonzmart family is part of Tampa’s history. Owners of the Columbia Restaurant—Florida’s oldest restaurant—the family members were involved in the development of the scholarship program because they recognized a need within the Latino community. The family currently sponsors eight students. 

“It’s much more than just giving them a scholarship,” says Andrea Gonzmart, whose father Richard Gonzmart is currently president of the Columbia Restaurant Group. “My father meets with the students on a regular basis. He is a resource for them.”

Some of the recipients have come from migrant families and “overcame so many things” to earn their degrees, she says. “They’ve all gone on to being professionals in the community.”

Support for Continuing Education 

Looking beyond graduation, the consortium would also like to raise the number of graduates who are either employed or are working toward advanced degrees in Florida to 79 percent—an increase of three percentage points. One way to accomplish this, Preston says, is to identify programs of study in which a student could earn a bachelor’s degree at one of the three universities, a master’s at another and a Ph.D. at a third. 

“By having faculty working together, they are getting students prepared to go into each program,” he says, adding that such an approach can also increase the number of minority, underrepresented students who are enrolled in those advanced degree programs.

Now a junior, Bolivar hopes to go into family medicine, but is also thinking about a Ph.D. route to continue studying science. Microbiology, he adds, is a key to better understanding the way bacteria causes disease, but it’s not typically taught in medical school. Either way, he intends to serve the Latino community in the Tampa area. 

He’s also already finding ways to give back to his community and inspire other Latino youth by letting them know about the opportunities available to them. He spoke with community college students about the scholarship program and encouraged them to continue their education.

Investments such as the scholarship program—and many of the other strategies that the consortium will implement over the next few years—benefit not only the students, but also entire families. Bolivar says his parents “have a huge load off their shoulders.”

“They don’t have to worry about me affording college,” he says. “And they don’t have to worry about me going on the right path because I have people guiding me.”

Category: Education Issues, Postsecondary Success

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