Breaking Down Barriers in Higher Education

While staff and faculty at institutions of higher learning generally use the summer season to prepare for the new academic year ahead, summertime is also a period of reflection on a university campus. This summer, my personal reflection has been focused on how far Felician University has come over the past 75 years and, more importantly, where we are headed in the future. A critical initiative near and dear to my heart has been to continue to find effective ways to narrow and ultimately eliminate the ethnicity gap.

In 2014 Felician was designated a minority-serving institution (underrepresented students) by the Department of the Interior and as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HIS) by the US Department of Education. I’m proud to share that over the years our campus has become more diverse and comprises 59 percent minority designated students - 29 percent Latinx, 24 percent African American, and 6 percent Asian- this figure is up 7% from 2015. Becoming a more diverse campus is only part of our goal at Felician, the other is improving the retention and graduation rates of our minority student body.

Autumn A. Arnett of Education Dive recently wrote that every U.S. state has adopted or revised a degree attainment goal to meet projections that 65 percent of job vacancies will require some type of post-secondary training by 2020[1]. However, these goals do not focus on racial and ethnic sub-populations. In order to be truly successfully in our initiatives, we need to disaggregate the data by ethnicity.

The Huffington Post notes that by 2030 the number of minority high-school graduates will increase by 12 percent and that as the demographics shift and the number of minority, low-income and first-to-college students increase, institutions of higher education need to address degree attainment goals by also developing new academic and student support programs to attract, enroll, retain and ultimately graduate these students. 

When I first arrived at Felician in 2012, I used, and continue to use, the Equity Scorecard from USC Rossier. The scorecard was built to support the concept that it’s not that a student must overcome inadequacies but that the institution should take responsibility for helping to change the student’s outcome. In order to change outcomes, it’s imperative to collect data in a way that’s easy to digest and to follow up by making student-centric institutional changes based on reliable, timely data.

After looking at the data we found that there were a variety of indicators as to why our retention and graduation rates were failing, and we had the power to improve those numbers and implement changes to close the gap. Many of our students fall into the category of “post-traditional”, meaning that these students fit one or more of the following categories: first-generation, commuter, working part or full -time, have family responsibilities, minority, and/or underprepared for successful completion of educational goals. We, as an institution with strong Franciscan values, need to come together and support students through equitable programs to help break down barriers and achieve one common goal – walking across our stage at the University’s Breslin Performing Arts Center each May, with diploma in hand. 

Over the years we’ve created numerous programs to help Felician's students achieve their goals. Oftentimes, our students are the first in their families to attend a university. While this is such a huge accomplishment in of itself, these students need extra support and mentorship to help them achieve academic success. Two programs we’ve developed are geared specifically for those who may not have support at home:

Academic Success Coaching is a program to assist students with navigating through the challenges of higher education. The college experience isn’t solely what happens inside the walls of a classroom. Students experience social pressures, financial constraints and a sense of independence that they don’t have in high school. This is why we have coaches and students working together to develop proactive strategies to address academic concerns and life challenges that can interfere with successful completion of educational goals.

Some individuals discover their calling in life earlier than others. For those who are still unsure, we’ve created the Undeclared/Undecided Discovery Program which provides an exploratory FYE course and specialized academic success coaching until a major is declared. This personalized coaching allows students to discover their true passion while staying on course. Many times, a student declares a major only to find that it isn’t what they expect. If that’s the case, our students can enroll in the program and work with a coach who will help them through changing majors and discovering their true passion.

I truly believe that learning must extend beyond the classroom walls. We encourage all of our students to partake in internships so that they can get hands on experience, make contacts with professionals in their prospective career path and build their resume. Unfortunately, a new ruling by the U.S. Labor Department has made it easier for companies to hire interns without paying them. Working without pay is not financially feasible for most students- especially students from underserved communities. In 2015, our Board of Trustees created the Felician Internship Fund so that students who are financially unable to commit to participate in unpaid internships are now able to do so. 

A national initiative that I’m very proud of, is our work with the Hispanic community. According to a 2015-2016 American Community Survey by The U.S. Census Bureau, 22 percent of Latinx adults (25 years of age and older) had earned an associate degree or higher, compared to 39 percent of all adults. The success of America’s Latinx students is critical to our nation’s future and the commitment of leadership in higher education is an important driver of that success. 

In the Fall of 2015, our university’s initiative on education excellence for Hispanic students was recognized by the Obama Administration. We committed over a half-million dollars to improve the academic success, persistence and graduation rates of Hispanic students. I am also a proud founding president for Excelencia in Education, a non-profit advocacy organization who have committed to making their institutions learning environments where Latinx students thrive. The national program comprises 61 institutions in 16 states and Washington, DC. 

I admire our students and the hard work and dedication they exert to accomplish their dreams. I look to our university, and campuses throughout the nation, to offer guidance and support as we work towards a brighter future for all. 

If you’re interested in supporting these wonderful programs, I encourage you to visit