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Stony Brook Positions Students for Upward Mobility

At Stony Brook University, a committed campus community, led by President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. (front) and faculty and staff like Provost’s Scholar for Diversity and Innovation David Ferguson and Career Center Director Marianna Savoca (also pictured), is helping economically disadvantaged students move up the socioeconomic ladder.
At Stony Brook University, a committed campus community, led by President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. (front) and faculty and staff like Provost’s Scholar for Diversity and Innovation David Ferguson and Career Center Director Marianna Savoca (also pictured), is helping economically disadvantaged students move up the socioeconomic ladder.

Danielle Meyers was a shy, reserved, timid young woman with an unstable upbringing and an uncertain future when she arrived at Stony Brook University in 2012. Growing up 60 miles away in Harlem, she had never met her father, and her mother suffered debilitating bouts of bipolar disorder. She and her four siblings spent time in and out of foster care. High school studies became a refuge for her. “I acted like nothing was going on at home,” she says. Eventually a teacher suggested that she apply to a special program at Stony Brook designed for academically promising, but economically disadvantaged, students. Meyers was admitted to the university through the program and soon was on a trajectory to a promising career path, earning a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2016, and a master’s in 2017. Meyers’s story is just one example of what is possible for students at Stony Brook.

Indeed, Stony Brook, one of New York’s top public universities and a flagship of the State University of New York, is a national leader in advancing the economic and wage mobility of its students. The institution, founded in 1957 and located on Long Island, offers more than 300 undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs in such fields as health science, mechanical engineering, and business management, while maintaining a 17 to 1 student faculty ratio . Through an array of academic support programs, targeted career outreach efforts, ambitious graduation initiatives, and an inclusive, positive, forward-focused culture, the campus is defying the odds for many low-income students by helping them move up the socioeconomic ladder.

An infrastructure for student support

The university, officials say, welcomes all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identification. Large banners hang on the sides of buildings to showcase success stories of particular students, sending the message that because this student did it, others can too. Steps are taken to connect students to each other and to the campus. The focus is on moving students forward. “It has to be part of the fabric of everything we do,” says Charles Robbins, Stony Brook’s vice provost for undergraduate education. “We know there are hurdles, and we want to help them get across the finish line.”

Madeline Augustin ‘05 came to SBU as a transfer student after struggling at another college and is now an engineer at Boeing.
Madeline Augustin ‘05 came to SBU as a transfer student after struggling at another college and is now an engineer at Boeing.

Madeline Augustin says it is that “student-centric” support that helped her build the foundation for a more promising future, with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science in 2005. Augustin, who is now an engineer for Boeing, was nine when her family left Haiti for Brooklyn, N.Y. Strong in math and science, she was determined to be the first in her family to go to college. She came to Stony Brook in 2003 as a third-year transfer, after struggling at another college. At her first mid-term, she had a 2.0 GPA and considered dropping out.

Her outlook changed after she attended a workshop called “Guaranteed 4.0,” at a conference for the university’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. She re-focused her approach, and she relied on Stony Brook’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), which offers study groups, academic advising, and career exploration, and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), which provides scholarships, mentoring, internships, tutoring, and more. “That turned me around,” says Augustin. “It taught me new skills that included cutting back on my hectic schedule outside of classes and studying smarter. I ended up turning it into a 3.56 semester.”

University officials keep a close eye on what is working and what is not. Every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m., the Academic Success Team meets to discuss progress. The team includes about 25 representatives from advising, faculty, registration, admissions, financial aid, and more. Using “predictive analytics,” a data scientist on staff reviews algorithms and predictors of success, and the team now relies on hard data to track effectiveness.

“We’re trying to get help to students before they might even realize they need it,” says Braden J. Hosch, Stony Brook’s assistant vice president for institutional research, planning, and effectiveness.

An engine of social mobility

Assistant Professor Thomas Woodson (center) helps community college mathematics transfer students through S-STEM ASSETS.
Assistant Professor Thomas Woodson (center) helps community college mathematics transfer students through S-STEM ASSETS.

National statistics indicate the success of Stony Brook’s efforts. According to a January 2017 study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Stony Brook ranks No. 1 among highly selective public universities and No. 3 nationally among all colleges and universities in its effectiveness for accepting students at the bottom fifth of the nation’s income distribution and then graduating them to go on and earn incomes in the top three-fifths. The study, entitled Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility, used Internal Revenue Service data to compare the earnings of college graduates in their early 30s with their parents’ incomes when the graduates were students. The findings are based on a sampling of more than 30 million U.S. college graduates from about 2,500 institutions between 1999 and 2013.The study’s authors, who performed a sophisticated analysis of the cross-sectional sample, define each college’s mobility rate as the product of “access,” the fraction of its students who come from families in the bottom fifth, and its “success rate,” the fraction of such students who reach the top fifth.

The study determined that Stony Brook has a “bottom-to-top-quintile” mobility rate of 8.4 percent, compared with 2.2 percent at Ivy League and private elite institutions. Stony Brook’s rate is strengthened by the fact that it enrolls higher numbers of low-income students. Forty percent of its 17,000 undergraduates receive Pell Grants, and more than one-third are the first in their families to go to college. Such groups are regarded as high risk for dropping out because of financial, academic, and personal obstacles.

Yet, according to the study, Stony Brook’s graduation rates outperformed many other four-year institutions, by race and ethnicity. Stony Brook’s six-year graduation rates are 78 percent for Asian students, 71.3 percent for black students, 70.5 percent for white students, and 65.4 percent for Hispanics.

“The Stanford study is a striking confirmation of Stony Brook’s unique strengths as an engine of social mobility,” says Samuel L. Stanley Jr., the university’s president. “We admit the best and brightest students, regardless of socioeconomic status, and give them the top-flight education they need for success.”

Easing the transition to campus

Perhaps the largest of Stony Brook’s campus support programs is the Educational Opportunity Program/Advancement on Individual Merit, or EOP/AIM. It is a state-funded program, begun in 1967, and designed specifically for economically disadvantaged students. The average household income of participants is less than $25,000, and the program serves roughly 780 undergraduates a year. Priority is given to first-generation students based on their academic potential and recommendations. All freshmen admitted through the program are required to attend an intense five-week transition and instruction program called “Summer Academy” before the semester begins. For most, it is the first time they have been away from home. During the next four years, EOP/AIM support services, including scholarships, research, internships, leadership, and international study, are tailored for each individual student.

EOP/AIM was life-changing for Bergre Escorbores, a 2000 and 2001 Stony Brook alumnus. Escorbores was 2 years old when his family immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic. His father was a factory worker, and his mother a home-care attendant. Money was a problem. His neighborhood was full of gangs and drug activity. Even though he earned good grades and played varsity football, a guidance counselor told him to forget college and pick a trade. But then a teacher told him about the EOP. Today he holds advanced degrees. His first job in education marked a milestone. “My starting salary was $36,086—I remember that number because I was making more money than any member of my family ever had.”

Stony Brook’s outreach programs target Long Island elementary, middle, and high schools to identify academically capable, but not necessarily college-bound, students. Like the tutoring, mentoring, advising, and scholarship opportunities offered to current students, the outreach initiatives are also supported by state, university, and private funds.

“We’re not looking at ways to weed people out of something but to include them and help them be successful,” says Richard Gatteau, Stony Brook’s interim vice president of student affairs and dean of students. “It’s a change of mindset—that you can do something; not that you can’t.”

Community outreach

Stony Brook’s Institute for STEM Education, known as I-STEM, for example, is a major interdisciplinary center, staffed by 12 faculty members. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), I-STEM offers math and science programs year-round, even on Saturdays, to middle- and high-school students. Since starting with one faculty member in borrowed space in 1994, the institute has worked with more than 80,000 secondary school students to ignite their interest in advanced learning. “Let’s say you’re in ninth grade at a high-needs school district, and you’ve never done DNA splicing,” says David Kahn, assistant professor of mathematics at the institute. “You can come here and do that in an actual college lab.”

High-school sophomores and juniors can also get a taste of higher education through Stony Brook’s Pre-College Summer Institute, a free week-long program run by the College of Arts and Sciences. Students stay in residence halls, tour campus, and take a series of mini-courses, workshops, and presentations in areas ranging from anthropology to theater. They also learn about financial aid and the admissions process. In the summer of 2016, only five of the 50 participants said they could afford college when they first arrived on campus. On the final day, all 50 said they could.

Charles Robbins (center), vice provost and director of SBU’s Freedom School, is flanked by the program’s 2017 graduates.
Charles Robbins (center), vice provost and director of SBU’s Freedom School, is flanked by the program’s 2017 graduates.

While some of Stony Brook’s efforts target secondary school students, its Freedom School focuses on a much younger demographic. In 2013, Stony Brook became a partner of the national Freedom School network, run by the Children’s Defense Fund, and operates the only one on a university campus. Stony Brook educators selected 50 promising second-graders from two low-income school districts to participate in the six-week enrichment program every summer until they graduate. The cohort is now in seventh grade. “This is a pipeline for them to become what they’re capable of,” says Robbins. “It can change the trajectory of their lives.”

Building on success

Stony Brook wants to create more graduation success stories. In the fall of 2014, at the direction of President Stanley, the University undertook an aggressive effort, called “Finish in 4,” to increase the four-year graduation rate to 60 percent by 2018. At the time, the rate was 46. It has been steadily increasing and hit 58 percent for the data reported in 2017-18. Among other measures, officials have stepped up academic advising, targeted student outreach and course-path planning. President Stanley created a special fund, allowing rising seniors who have hit an unexpected roadblock and cannot afford their last year, to apply for additional financial aid. Since it began, about 15 students per year have received aid, and they all have graduated on time.

As Stony Brook officials look to the future, they hope to close some lingering graduation gaps. They’re particularly concerned that female students are graduating at a higher rate than male students. Administrators are trying to figure out what is causing that imbalance and how to correct it to ensure that all students get the preparation they need to achieve financial security. In this effort and others, Stony Brook officials remain dedicated to taking the lessons learned and building upon them to help create a better future for their students, as well as society, in general.

“The positive belief in them makes a difference,” says Robbins. “We are improving their lives, the lives of their families of origin, and their future families.”

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