Getting through school, Fort Wayne style

Programs help students complete college degrees

Clockwise from left: IPFW students Alex Sanderson, Cornelius Pernell and Hugo Mata Jr. study with Diana Mejia Bonilla and Holly Lawson. photography by Neal Bruns
Marc Levy: Executive director of the Questa Education Foundation, which provides financial support to college students throughout the area. photography by Neal Bruns
Krissy Creager: Clear direction is a plus, IPFW’s assistant vice chancellor of student success and transitions says. The school’s Pathway Program aims to keep students focused. photography by Neal Bruns
Jessica M. Galindo: TRIO helped her graduate. Now, she’s the director of the program at the University of Saint Francis. photography by Neal Bruns

Conversations about going to college often focus on the emotionally-charged process of getting in.

But what are colleges and universities doing to ensure these same students are getting out? How is Northeast Indiana equipping students and providing support that ends four or five years later with plenty of pomp and circumstance – namely graduation and a degree?

Colleges, universities and foundations throughout the region are stepping up to the challenge with a variety of funding streams, scheduling adaptations and academic support designed to give area students the precise tools they need to finish strong.

Understanding the need

Statistically, only six in 10 college students will complete their degree within six years.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 60 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students at four-year institutions in the fall of 2008 completed their degree at that institution by 2014.

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems suggests the number may be even lower. Of the students who set out to earn a bachelor’s degree in the United States in 2009, the six-year graduation rate was just 55.5 percent, according to data at the center’s website.

Marc Levy, executive director of Questa Education Foundation, said financial concerns are often a barrier to starting, and finishing, an undergraduate degree program. Conversely, when money-related fears are reduced or eliminated, students can dig in and do what they are meant to do in college: focus on their studies, he said.

Questa Education Foundation provides financial support to college students in Northeast Indiana through a series of forgivable loan programs, each with varying eligibility requirements. Specifically, the foundation seeks to help students attain a degree, graduate with less debt and become contributing members of the area workforce.

Questa wants to turn ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain gain’ across the region, Levy said. To do this, Questa provides partial loan forgiveness to students who choose to live and work in Northeast Indiana for five years after graduation. “Almost 80 percent of our students graduate in four years and 90 percent within five years,” he said. “Two-thirds of the students we’re funding are staying here or returning to work here.”

Levy said the vitality of the area’s economy is contingent upon having a skilled workforce. “We need businesses and organizations to see how important this is,” he said. “This is a shared journey, and the fact that students are either graduating or not graduating is a community issue, not just an institutional issue.”

A new model

Financial matters are just part of the equation. Colleges and universities throughout Northeast Indiana are trying to do a better job of responding to student needs. It’s not uncommon for students to maintain full- or part-time employment while in school, which means they may not be able to attend class during the day. Other students have children and families, making it necessary to find affordable and reliable child care while they are in class.

Ivy Tech Community College is one area school that has embraced new instructional models.

For starters, the school recognizes a four-year degree is not the only path to a satisfying and successful career. “We have a very different focus than what a four-year school is going to have, and we define success very differently from other schools, too,” said Darrel Kesler, dean of technology and applied science at Ivy Tech. “If we have a student that gets through a certification or a program, the main thing we want to see is getting him or her employed into their field full time. That is success to us.”

Many of Ivy Tech’s programs address the specific needs of Northeast Indiana’s manufacturing industry. When students know they will be able to get high-paying jobs after graduation, there’s plenty of incentive to finish, Kesler said.

Bob Parker, department chair for advanced automation and robotic technology and industrial technology at Ivy Tech, said the school has incorporated a number of scheduling efforts designed to help students finish and get into the workforce as quickly as possible. For example, students can take a series of eight-week classes in quick succession, enabling them to work their way through a program of study more quickly. This eliminates the need to wait multiple semesters until a course is offered again, he said.

Nearly half of Ivy Tech’s courses are available during nights and weekends, as well. “We have timing that allows these students to continue to support a family, work full time and continue their education for a career,” Kesler said.

Finally, the school has robust partnerships with industry leaders throughout the region. Many of Ivy Tech’s programs incorporate industry-recognized certifications, which makes graduates more marketable. “We’re just really working with industry to identify the exact skills sets they need, and students are earning those as they pursue their education,” Parker said.

Relationships with industry partners are a huge part of the educational process. “We’re working directly with industries and getting them involved in a lot of things that are going on here on campus,” Parker said. “We may have students actually submitting assignments to some of our industry partners for critique. We’re just getting everybody involved and making students do a little bit of critical thinking and putting a little more quality into their work because we know that there is a third party out there that is invested in the product that is coming out of Ivy Tech.”

Academic support

As flexible scheduling options are becoming increasingly common on campuses throughout the region, schools are also recognizing the need to provide meaningful support when a student begins to struggle academically.

Krissy Creager, assistant vice chancellor of student success and transitions at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said students who enter college without a clear sense of direction often flounder. To address this need, IPFW recently adopted the Pathway Program, which helps two populations: those who aren’t sure about their intended major at the time of enrollment, and those who have been admitted conditionally and therefore are not permitted to declare a major.

Instead of being classified as undeclared, students who aren’t sure exactly what they want to do are required to choose one of several pathways, including Business and Leadership, Education, Humanities and Social & Behavioral Sciences, Allied Health Sciences, Engineering and Science, Polytechnic, as well as Visual and Performing Arts. The goal is to give students a chance to explore a broad subject area before narrowing down their efforts and selecting a single degree program.

During their first couple of semesters at IPFW, Pathway students – who represent approximately one-third of the incoming freshman class – explore career options and make connections with faculty and staff in academic departments of interest. “They really have time to develop a clear, articulated pathway into a specific career,” Creager said.

Of the students who participated in the Pathway Program in the fall of 2016, 72 percent declared a major after their first semester at IPFW. By comparison, in previous fall semesters when the program was not in place, only 40 percent of students declared a major.

Additionally, IPFW provides an additional layer of support to conditionally-admitted students through its Student Success Program. These students typically have comparable SAT scores to regular admissions, but they had a high school GPA in the 2.0 to 2.5 range.

The Student Success program, which began in the fall of 2016, requires conditionally-admitted students to sign a contract with GPA stipulations. Specifically, these students must complete 24 credit hours in two semesters and maintain a GPA of 2.8. In addition, they must participate in a one-credit Student Success course that provides tips, tools and resources intended to help them throughout their college journey.

After one semester, Creager said the retention of these students increased 28 percent compared with the previous fall.

In addition to providing a strong start for incoming freshmen, Creager is committed to helping students placed on academic probation get back on track via an eight-week student success course. The free, non-credit, online course provides timely delivery of academic and student success skills and resources. Students on probation also meet with a coach.

Early results are promising. Of the students who completed the course last fall, 79 percent returned to good academic standing, 3 percent were dismissed and 18 percent continued on probation, Creager said. Of those who did not complete the course, 45 percent returned to good academic standing, 20 percent were dismissed and 35 percent continued on probation.

Additionally, 46 percent of the students who completed the course raised their cumulative GPA above at-risk levels (2.39 or higher).

Student retention is a big focus at colleges across the United States, Creager said. “We, as an institution, need to develop ways to address these gaps. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We can’t put a Band-Aid on the issue of student retention. However, what we’ve begun to do is move toward specific programs that may help the retention problem.”

Barton Price, director for the Centers for Academic Success and Achievement at IPFW, routinely evaluates the pass-fail rate of various courses on campus, and he reaches out to students who are taking courses that traditionally present a problem for them. The reasoning: there is sort of a scaffolding in the curriculum. Students need to pass certain courses as prerequisites for others, so failing a class that happens early on in that hierarchy can delay a student’s ability to advance. “We’re trying to help students navigate through gateway courses so they can move into their intended major of study,” he said.

John Milliken, assistant vice president of academic services with the Academic Success Department at Trine University, provides similar guidance. He has identified several courses that have a history of being problematic for students. When working with incoming freshmen who have been identified as at risk, Milliken often urges them to hold off on those courses right out of the gate. The goal, he said, is to make sure students can build upon a successful first semester.

Like many area colleges, Trine has created several programs designed to help students make the transition from high school to college. The school’s First Year Experience program and Summer Bridge program specifically address the needs of incoming freshmen who may need a little extra support during that time. Academic advising provides an opportunity to reinforce those messages as students continue along their educational journey.

Milliken said the school’s ongoing efforts work in concert with one another. “It’s just taking the time to get to know your students, taking the time to know your curriculum and where the difficulties lie and then matching them up.”

Creating focus

Finally, area schools are looking for creative ways to help students become immersed in campus culture. The premise is that students who feel connected to their campus community are more likely to do well.

Brian Engelhart, vice president of university relations at Indiana Tech, said the school offers a First Year Experience program as well. Every first-year student participates in the program, which introduces students to support resources and organizations on campus. “The transition to college is different for everybody,” Engelhart said. “This is an intentional effort to help students through those very first stages of college and help get them off on the right foot.”

At the University of Saint Francis, 140 students find support through TRIO, a federally-funded program that helps students from various backgrounds successfully navigate the college journey.

Jessica M. Galindo, director of TRIO Student Support Services at USF and a TRIO alumna, said the program provides education about financial literacy, scholarship and grant aid (when applicable),  academic counseling, workshops, cultural events, leadership development opportunities, mentoring, tutoring and more. “TRIO is designed to be an extra helping hand for each student that’s part of the program to progress in college and then graduate from college,” she said.

Galindo, who participated in a similar TRIO program when she was a student at Indiana University, said the program often casts a net of support around students who need it. “My parents were Mexican migrant workers, so they couldn’t help me academically,” Galindo said. “Culturally speaking, we’re not used to being away from our families, and TRIO provided a family away from home that we could go to.”

These collective efforts represent a growing commitment to support students in their quest to earn a college degree.

Levy is particularly excited about the vast array of financial, academic and programming support, as well as the people who are collaborating to put these programs in place.

“The partnership is all about addressing talent development and economic development, which starts with people,” he said.

First appeared in the March 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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