Among the many challenges facing higher education today, one has an especially powerful, and sometimes painful, impact on our students and their families. Nationally, about 40% of undergraduate students drop out before they complete their degree. When we dig deeper into the data, we also find that students of color are more likely to drop out than their white peers. Bridge Michigan recently shared a sobering statistic: In our state, Black students graduate at a rate more than 20% lower than their white peers.
This is a serious problem that we must address. After all, dropping out — or stopping out — of college leads to gaps in opportunity in the workplace and can have tremendous, long-term implications for families and communities.
More than 50% of current jobs now require some level of post-secondary education, and both the fastest-growing and the new and emerging career fields are even more likely to require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or higher. The difference in earning potential is just as striking: Individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, nearly $25,000 more per year than individuals with high school diplomas alone, and they experience unemployment at a rate nearly 50% lower.
A college degree does not only positively impact career opportunities, however. A college education also can have long-lasting benefits for individuals and their communities that extend far beyond the workplace. People who attend college tend to have better health outcomes and even live longer lives. Studies show they are more likely to give back through volunteerism and other forms of engagement in civic life.
The benefits of a college education are clear, yet each year at CMU, we see students leave our campus without a degree in hand. As I said in this year’s State of the University address, if some of our most talented and hardest-working students are unable to persist to commencement, we are not meeting our most fundamental mission: to educate and graduate future leaders.
Therefore, as part of our Strategic Envisioning Process, CMU set a moonshot goal to significantly increase and equalize degree attainment rates. With support from our partners and together as a community, we will identify — and address — the reasons students choose to leave college before graduation.
We know there are many reasons a student may choose to leave CMU. In some cases, they may have arrived inadequately prepared for academic and student life. Especially in the case of first-generation students, they may not have had sufficient guidance from family members or high school counselors to equip them for the challenges of a rigorous course load, life in a residential hall or participation in extracurricular activities.
To address this issue, we must begin at the recruitment phase and consider the support we offer throughout the entire CMU student experience. We have engaged educational consulting firm EAB to conduct a 360-degree Student Equity Audit designed to examine the policies, practices, services and supports we have in place, and to help us identify opportunities to improve our efforts.
I am very proud of many of the student success programs CMU has in place already to assist with the transition to college, including TRIO Upward Bound, Pathways to Academic Student Success, the Student Transition Enrichment Program and more.
On-campus guidance and mentorship also play a critical role in student success. We are adding an additional staff position to Multicultural Academic Student Services to meet the growing need for mentorship for students identifying as Latinx, and there are many other avenues for students to find and connect with mentors on campus through academic programs, athletics, student activities and more.
We also know it is critical to help students map out their academic path and to see a connection between their educational journey and their career aspirations. We implemented proactive, multi-semester academic advising to help students develop and stick to a plan for degree attainment, and we encourage them to begin using our Career Development Center services as early as their freshman year.
As part of this academic path, we know many students will begin at a community college. CMU is committed to strengthening relationships and partnerships with community colleges around Michigan, particularly our neighbors Delta College and Mid Michigan College. We want to strengthen articulation agreements and build more pathways and other services that reduce time, financial burden, work and other obstacles for students pursuing a four-year degree. This type of collaboration with these two institutions, in particular, will continue to enhance our students’ opportunities for brighter, more successful futures.
We also know, however, that the most cited reason for dropping out is financial pressure. It is no secret that the costs of tuition and fees have been on the rise for years, and the price tag of a four-year degree often means students have to balance their schoolwork alongside a part- or full-time job, sometimes while still forced to take out loans.
CMU has a long history of making an education affordable. For many years, students who were Pell eligible received enough gift aid to cover the cost of tuition at CMU. Among Michigan universities, CMU has kept tuition increases to a minimum which, along with the generous aid packages we offer, has provided students an affordable path forward to degree attainment. Our scholarships are indexed to the rate of tuition so that if tuition goes up, so does the value of the scholarship.
To address the financial challenges our students face, we began by extending need-based aid beyond the first two years of a student’s education. Students who qualify for need-based funding are now eligible to receive support throughout their entire undergraduate experience.
In addition, we have significantly increased the number and value of the scholarships we offer. For example, the Multicultural Advancement and Lloyd M. Cofer Scholarships are now larger, and with financial support from generous alumni, we have added a new Finish Up Chips! scholarship specifically for students at risk of stopping out due to financial concerns.
CMU has a tradition and a commitment of serving low-income students. Students who were Pell eligible historically had their full tuition covered. To further expand on our generous aid packages, we are enhancing a CMU program that will help all families with an adjusted gross income of $50,000 or less by ensuring that tuition will be fully covered, beginning with the Fall 2021 incoming classes. We will do this by combining any federal, state or institutional aid for which the student may qualify and thereby ensuring that a CMU degree is in reach.
In addition, we are encouraging more students and families to engage us with their questions through live events on Facebook, and we are pointing them to resources and educational programs offered by CMU’s Financial Wellness Collaborative.
Each of our students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, arrives at Central Michigan University with unique goals and needs. We will continue to look for other ways to make an education at CMU accessible and affordable, and to ensure that every student receives the personalized attention and necessary resources to reach commencement day.