In a climate in which every institution is trying to find the answers to the challenges of increasing student retention and closing the graduation gap, Tony Randall, senior manager of the Student Success Initiative at the University of Maryland, may have found the answer: Let the students command their destinies.
In higher ed culture, many discussions are around "universities doing things to students," said UMD vice president of student affairs Dr. Warren Kelly. Instead, Randall has "found a way to empower students to do things for themselves," striking "this right balance of giving [students] enough guidance and giving them a ratcheted guidance that kind of lessens over time," Kelly said.
"What we are attempting to do is something we are calling a student service leadership model. We are empowering students to really lead this effort on campus to improve retention and graduation rates," Randall said.
"Essentially the message that we tell our students who are a part of the group is whatever great idea you have, bring it to the group, and if the group wants to make it happen, we'll make it happen," he continued. "It turns a very impersonal system into a very personal system, in terms of turning whatever challenge [students are] having into a system to get them whatever they need."
For the last two years, a group of students have put on an event called FreshCon, a welcome event for incoming African-American students to help them get acclimated to campus, even before the all-class orientation. The event, which Randall said was entirely designed and marketed by the students, and which has "been tremendously successful," features a group of mostly-sophomore leaders giving advice to incoming freshman on navigating the collegiate environment.
"I feel like as a group, we're setting an example for other minority students … we can work together to make sure we can succeed on campus," said Kim Hopkins, the sophomore treasurer of the Student Success Leadership Council.
"It's easy to feel excluded, it's easy to feel small" on a large campus, said sophomore Inole Fanilola, the group's vice president.
Even as student affairs professionals, Kelly admitted administrators can often be disconnected from the experiences and needs of students. A top-down approach runs the risk of missing "any kind of discussion about what these students feel and experience on these campuses as it relates to any kind of culture," Randall said. At Maryland, "we said you know what, let's get a group of students and see how they can help us," he continued.
And so far, they've run with it.
"We have a group of students who are also part of our retention committee. And that group just created a financial aid, a financial literacy video from a student perspective," Randall said.
Not only that, the young leaders also established a scholarship fund to award microgrants to students who may be struggling to close funding gaps. Realizing that one of the major barriers to graduation, is the inability to pay for school, the Student Success Emergency Fund has raised over $3,500 to use to help these students, and they've launched a crowdfunding campaign hoping to raise another $15,000 to "supply more Maryland students with scholarships and enable them to succeed academically and financially," they wrote on the campaign page.
Students make social, economical impact
Allowing students agency to own their outcomes and the outcomes affecting their peers not only helps build a sense of "I am my brother's keeper" community, it makes the job of the student affairs staff easier.
"In terms of funding, I have a modest budget ... but what we've done and what has been a little bit different than what has typically happened on this campus, because of the success they've had with these events, not only has there been a lot of interest to partner from students, there's been a lot of support from alumni groups and other departments on campus," Randall said. "It allows us to leverage departments and colleges in ways that really hasn’t traditionally been done."
The group is also working on "a portfolio to begin using to market to corporations and also to send out to alumni" to further their fundraising efforts for both the Emergency Scholarship Fund and future programs.
The students' efforts are having a measurable impact on the university. As the flagship university in a system that was charged in 2005 to raise the graduation rates for African-American students — males in particular — by significant margins, UMD has risen to the challenge. African-American graduation rates at UMD hit 80.9% this past year, and African-American males are graduating at 74.2% — making for a historically low 12.2% degree attainment gap. In fact, gains in black male graduation rates are outpacing every other demographic group over the last four years, Kelly said.
"You can talk about changing the systems and changing institutional culture. But for me, in a $2 billion university, changing anything is [a] huge [undertaking]. It's far more effective, far more powerful if you get to the students themselves," said Kelly. "Their work is part of this success, and people are paying attention."