Leadership & Governance

What It Takes to Help Students Succeed

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, U. of Maryland-Baltimore County

July 17, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz


SARA LIPKA: We are here today with Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Freeman, thanks so much for joining us.

FREEMAN A. HRABOWSKI III: Delighted to be here.

SARA LIPKA: Now, you have the Meyerhoff Scholars Scholarship Program on your campus.


SARA LIPKA: And that involves financial aid and a summer bridge program, lots of advising, and support, and the results have been very good.


SARA LIPKA: Is that the recipe for success, for student success? Or how is it that the model works so well?

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FREEMAN A. HRABOWSKI III: Sure. I think that model was the one we began with some years ago. And it's now been replicated by both Penn State and Chapel Hill, and funded by Howard Hughes, by HHMI, which is great. And so that means students of all types, including minorities and women, in science.

But I think what's really exciting is we've built other models that focus on the same principles. And this is for people in the humanities, our Dresher Humanities Scholars, and our Linehan Artists Scholars, and our Sherman Scholars in teacher ed for people in math and science, all the way to our CWIT Scholars, young women in science, and particularly in engineering, in the Center for Women in IT.

And in all these programs, the emphasis is on building community among students and in living-learning floors, where they are learning a lot about collaboration, academic collaboration. And the focus for the campus now is on connecting every student to some group.

And so what we learned in the early years from Meyerhoff we're now using with students across the board, across disciplines, in the arts, humanities, social sciences, as well as science and engineering. It's working so well that about 40 percent of the students go immediately to grad school, and that's of all races, and graduation rates have improved tremendously. And we have visitors from campuses around the country and from other countries regularly.

SARA LIPKA: To what extent is there a challenge of stereotype threat with some of these programs, that you're delivering the message to students, implicitly or explicitly, that you are underrepresented, you might be at risk, you need some extra help?

FREEMAN A. HRABOWSKI III: Right. You know, I find that students of all backgrounds really need support. If you look at students of any race at our colleges and universities around the country, including those at the most socially prestigious institutions in our country, you will find that large percentages don't necessarily succeed in science and engineering.

All you need to do is look at the report that I chaired for the National Academy of Sciences, and you'll see 20 percent of blacks and Hispanics, but only 32 percent of whites, and 40 percent of Asian-Americans who begin with a major in science and engineering graduate with a major in those areas. And large numbers of the students who don't graduate had very high test scores and grades.

So my point, as somebody who's been teaching math and thinking about these issues for 40 years, is that students of all backgrounds need support, not just in science and engineering. I think one of the reasons that wonderful liberal-arts colleges are so effective is that they do give a lot of support to all of their students across disciplines.

I think we in research universities, like UMBC and others, can learn from that, and this is what faculty at UMBC work to do. Whether they're talking about students in the humanities or in engineering, we are working to support our students. And in all of these programs, these communities of scholars, the idea is not that they simply need help, because all human beings need help in one way or another. It's silly to think otherwise.

We are teaching them to use a strengths-based approach. How do they take their strengths and put those strengths together to build synergy so that they can be much better as a group than they would be as separate individuals?

SARA LIPKA: What about the students on campus who are not part of a scholarship program, who don't have that extra advising and mentoring? What about them? Are there lessons in these programs for them, or can these programs be extended to a whole campus?

FREEMAN A. HRABOWSKI III: Excellent question. And that's where we have redesigned courses in general across a number of disciplines in the first year and now the next year. That's why we have these wonderful innovation funds designed to allow faculty across disciplines to infuse community service into the courses, to infuse additional redesigning techniques into a lot of courses that will allow students to work in groups, all right.

And the living-learning floors, which have nothing necessarily to do with communities of scholars, but having students with opportunities to be on floors that focus on Chinese or on Russian culture, or floors that focus on working in certain groups in Baltimore.

And so, more and more, the goal is to have every student connected to some community on that campus so the student feels an affiliation and has somebody with whom he or she can connect all the time. It's very important.

SARA LIPKA: What's the role of data in improving student success, particularly retention?

FREEMAN A. HRABOWSKI III: Sure. We talk a lot and write a lot about analytics and the idea of analyzing trends on our campus, whether we're talking about performance in particular disciplines or looking at how we disaggregate the data to look at women from certain backgrounds, for example, or to look at attitudes of students in technology areas, or to see why we don't get more students in certain disciplines, to talk with teachers and counselors in the school systems.

Too often we in universities make decisions based on anecdotal information rather than going to the data to see exactly what we can learn based on a number of years of trends and looking at how people have behaved, what they say, how they performed. And so we've been doing a lot of data warehousing and training people in the use of data analytics in not only having robust conversations, but in learning how to ask good questions.

SARA LIPKA: What would you say to campus leaders who worry about to what extent they can improve student success, graduation rates, let's say, in such tight budgets?

FREEMAN A. HRABOWSKI III: Listen, the more successful students are, the larger the percentage of students who remain on the campus, the more revenues the campus will have to help with budgetary issues. And so it is about ROI, return on investment.

We can never invest too much in efforts to help students succeed, for two reasons. Morally, we owe it to our students to do whatever we can to make sure they're successful. We recruited them there. We told them we were going to do whatever we could to help them succeed.

But secondly, when they succeed, quite frankly, and we support them in being able not only to be there, but to, quite frankly, pay that bill, then we have the funds we need to invest in infrastructure and other kinds of issues, whether it involves factors such as the teaching, the classroom, the technology. And the only way we can have the funds we need is to have enough students.

And the worst thing we can be doing is bringing students in, having them there for a year or two, having them leave dissatisfied or not having done well, and then spending a lot of money to bring in more students. And this, too often, happens in a number of cases.

We've got to find ways of bringing in students whom we know we can serve, of using analytics to figure out what's the background of the student, what's the level of resources we have that will ensure that the student has a reasonable chance of succeeding on our campus with support.

SARA LIPKA: I heard a college president say once that, although he wanted to increase the graduation rates at his institution, he didn't want them to go too high because he would feel then like the institution wasn't taking risks on students who didn't immediately present themselves as successful. I wonder what you think of that idea.

FREEMAN A. HRABOWSKI III: I think that's one approach. I want my graduation rates to be as high as they can possibly be, quite frankly. I always know there will be some students who will come who will find that the UMBC experience may not be for them. I do want them to find it a rigorous environment.

I define quality, high quality, in terms of two things: one, the rigor of the work, but also the level of support we give. My colleagues would agree with me. We believe the work should be very rigorous, whether in literature or in biochemistry. And we believe that we, as professionals, as educators, should be as supportive of those students as possible.

Once we've given that support and given the student the opportunity to work with us in connecting, then we see what happens. We don't believe there's something called too much support. We can support and push.

If you show the student that you care deeply, you can really help that student to go to the next level, and all things are possible. So I don't worry about what the graduation rate really is as much as I want to know we've done all we can to help that student become the best that she can become.

SARA LIPKA: Well, Freeman, thank you so much for visiting us.

Sara Lipka edits coverage of campus life and other topics. Follow her on Twitter @chronsara, or email her at sara.lipka@chronicle.com.