Access to education does not equal attainment of a college degree. Nationally and at DePaul, students of color, particularly men, graduate at lower rates than white students. Fewer minorities pursue graduate programs or doctoral programs; and students of color are less likely to participate in internships that lead to job offers and better employment.
The reasons are plentiful, according to DePaul staff who run programs that support students on their journeys to commencement and careers. They include:
- Poor educational preparation for low-income students who attended under-resourced inner-city schools
- Lack of role models for first-generation students
- Little understanding of how to navigate college
- The need for paying part- or full-time work that precludes unpaid internships, and
- Longer commutes, consuming an average of two hours per day, for DePaul students who do not live on campus.
In its new strategic plan, Vision 2018, DePaul committed to focusing the university on student learning and success. Closing gaps in degree completion across racial and ethnic groups is one of the university’s top strategic priorities.
Men of Color
DePaul’s Office of Multicultural Student Success launched its Men of Color (MOC) initiative in 2008 to break down barriers linked to lower graduation rates for male minorities. It supports first-generation or low-income men who attended Chicago Public Schools by focusing on academic excellence, social networking and career preparation.
Overall, first- and second-year retention rates are about 7 percent higher for men in the program, as compared to their counterparts who do not participate, For those from Chicago, retention is about 11 percent higher, according to Eric Mata, assistant director of Multicultural Student Success who heads the MOC program.
But the most dramatic results are in undergraduate degree attainment. Students who participated in the first cohort who earned their diplomas in June 2012 graduated at a rate nearly five percentage points higher than male students of color who did not participate in the program.
A new component of the program, to be launched in full in the fall of 2013, will connect juniors with faculty mentors.
“There is something about the way we are taught to be men that affects our ability to seek help,” Mata said. “Building direct relationships between men of color and faculty will give students access to important information and advice about how to achieve their career objectives and will ensure that these students are taking the logical steps to attain their goals.”
Minting more Ph.D’s of Color
The university has also focused resources on strengthening the pipeline of promising minority scholars. Since 1999, DePaul has earned competitive federal funds for the McNair Scholars program that prepares underrepresented students for doctoral studies through research experience, faculty mentoring and other activities.
The results are impressive. Ninety-seven percent of McNair Scholars have earned their bachelor’s degree from DePaul, and of those, 72 percent went on to graduate school. As of June 2012, 60 former McNair Scholars had earned post-baccalaureate degrees, including five who earned doctorates and two who hold university faculty positions.
But there are not enough federally funded slots to accommodate the volume of promising students, so in 2012, DePaul created the Mitchem Fellows, named for Arnold Mitchem, founding president of the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Opportunity in Education, which serves nearly 790,000 students each year through educational enhancement programs. Mitchem Fellows are sophomores, who now have a pathway into the prestigious McNair program and receive similar opportunities funded by DePaul.
Other students of color, are eager to start their careers immediately upon graduation, often find themselves disadvantaged in the professional job market because they lack internship experience. Richard Morales, retention coordinator in Multicultural Student Success, says one contributing factor to their low participation rate is economic. Many of these students already work 30 to 40 hours per week, particularly in the summer, and don’t have time for an extra 20-hour per week internship, especially if it is unpaid.
To address this, Morales teaches a new two-credit exploratory internship course targeting students of color. The course helps students think strategically about how to secure the job of their dreams. They are taught how to collect information about the industry, make key connections and distinguish themselves from other candidates. They also come to understand what Morales calls the “matrix of skills” that they have already acquired through employment.
Finally, they are coached in the ways to apply their current job experiences to for-credit internships that will satisfy their junior experiential learning requirement, thus accelerating their progress to degree.
Focused efforts like these are ensuring that more students, and especially students of color, receive their college degrees. In fact, the six‐year graduation rate gap among racial/ethnic groups at DePaul has closed to a 10 percentage point difference between the highest and lowest groups, primarily as a result of increasing graduation rates of African‐American students. More work remains, but the results of these early initiatives are both impressive and encouraging.