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Lumina Foundation Awards Grant to Vassar to Research Higher-Than-Expected Results of Under-Resourced Colleges

According to recent studies, four-year colleges in the United States graduate about half of their students in six years. But some institutions, including some that lack the resources of more prestigious colleges and universities, achieve much higher-than-expected results. A team of Vassar College researchers, headed by President Elizabeth H. Bradley, have secured a $125,000 grant from Lumina Foundation to learn how and why these institutions are succeeding.

Bradley will be joined by Wendy Maragh Taylor, Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement, and Professor of Education Christopher Bjork as lead investigators on the project. Charlotte Gullick, a member of the Student Growth and Engagement team; Dr. Biniam Tesfamariam, Director of Institutional Research; Kathleen Vu, Project Manager; and Vassar research intern Mariam Eshetu ’24 are the other members of the team.

Studies have shown that colleges with lower graduation rates are more likely to have more limited resources and larger numbers of students of color. These institutions are also likely to have a lower endowment and otherwise lack the financial resources that many other colleges possess. The goal of the Lumina-funded study will be to determine how such institutions that do have higher than expected graduation rates are able to achieve them. Maragh Taylor and other members of the team plan to visit six such institutions over the next 12 months, meeting with faculty, students, and administrators to gather relevant data.

Maragh Taylor said she and others on the research team were eager to begin the study, noting that while the benefits of completing college are well documented, experts in the field are alarmed by the low success rates at many institutions. “Both individual and institutional factors have an impact on retention and persistence,” she said. “It’s important to take a deep dive into investigating institutions that are doing better than most might expect in this area.”

Maragh Taylor said the main goal of the research project will be to highlight how students in successful institutions are being supported by faculty and administrators. “We plan to find out what these colleges are doing and share that across the field.

“This is all part of the work of making sure higher education is, in fact, a public good,” she concluded. “While the number of students who are not completing college degrees is widespread, we certainly see a higher number of underrepresented students in this category—first-generation college students, students of color, and students from lower-income backgrounds. So this is also vital equity work—it’s social justice.”

Eshetu said she agreed with Maragh Taylor that this aspect of the study was particularly important. “As a student of color myself, I understand many of the challenges they face staying in school, especially at schools that may not have the same resources Vassar has,” she said. “The plan is for me to visit a couple of the colleges in the study, and I think my input will be helpful because the students I talk to will be able to relate to me, and I’ll be able to ask the right questions.”

Bjork said the grant would enable the Vassar research team “to develop a body of knowledge about concrete steps that can be taken to provide underserved students with the support they need to reach their academic potential.”

Once the results of the research project are shared with other institutions, Bjork said he expected the team’s work to make a significant difference in how many students are served. “People around the country are doing some fantastic work, but they are working largely in isolation,” he said. “This project is designed to share existing knowledge about strategies for supporting talented students. We are excited about the possibilities of creating a community of institutions committed to expanding educational opportunities for all students.”

October 23, 2023
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