By Patricia L. Brennan
Twenty years ago, Sugar Ditch Alley was a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Tunica, a river town in Mississippi's northwest corner. Rundown houses, many without running water or electricity, were the norm, as was a drainage ditch that pumped raw sewage throughout the Sugar Ditch area. When Jesse Jackson visited Tunica in the mid-1980s, he referred to it as "America's Ethiopia."
For Renada Scott, 20, it was once home.
Growing up in a single-parent household just a few miles from the river, Scott says her high school years were a balancing act. Rather than socialize after school with friends, she hurried home to take care of her two siblings, cooking and cleaning while their mother worked from 3 p.m. to 11 a.m. as a hostess at a local casino.
"Basically, my mother was at home while we were in school and then went to work when we got home," Scott says.
Far from bitter, Scott says the experience taught her a valuable lesson: She wanted more in life for herself and her family, and she knew that college would help her reach those goals.
When it came time to decide on an institution, Scott drew inspiration from a relative who was attending Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss. another Mississippi River town about 220 miles to the south.
"My cousin became pregnant in her freshman year," she explains, "and she was prepared to drop out of school. Her mentor and guidance counselor showed her a way so that she could stay in school with her child and still graduate. She's now in her last year of nursing school. I thought: 'If they could help her, they can certainly help me.' "
Like all incoming freshmen at Alcorn State (ASU), Scott was assigned a mentor and faculty adviser as part of the school's College for Excellence program. It serves as a concentrated learning center for the university, with the sole focus on increasing student success.
Professor Troy Stewart has worked at ASU for 34 years; he is Scott's faculty adviser and chairman of the chemistry department. "Renada has overcome every obstacle," Stewart says. "Failure is not a possibility in her world."
Stewart is a pied piper on campus; students are drawn to him because he clearly is invested in them. He advises about 80 students and continues to teach chemistry classes for freshmen. "If I stop teaching, then I am going to retire that same week," he says with a laugh. "Students are my only concern for being here; without them, I have no business at Alcorn."
ASU has worked hard to connect with students, particularly during their first year. In 1997, 33 percent of the students who enrolled went on to earn a college degree. Determined to improve its retention rates, the university developed an "academic reform agenda," which included a series of retention programs and student- engagement initiatives. One of those programs was the College for Excellence.
As an entry point for freshmen and transfer students, the College for Excellence provides individualized academic work plans for students. Depending on their needs, students may receive academic remediation, counseling, goal-planning help, mentoring, tutoring, career placement, internships and testing services all of which are intended to encourage and motivate students to progress through college and graduate.
The College for Excellence not only strengthens relationships between students and faculty, it also has been instrumental in improving ASU's graduation and retention rates. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Education, the six-year graduation rate for entering freshmen at Alcorn State is 45.3 percent. In the 2006-2007 academic year, the fall-to-fall retention rate for freshmen at ASU was 63 percent and has been as high as 74 percent.
University officials continue to look for ways to enhance students' experiences. The College for Excellence recently added a program that will electronically monitor class attendance, allowing faculty members to intervene earlier and get students back on track academically.
"For many reasons, a growing number of today's students arrive at college unprepared for college-level work," says Edward Vaughn, dean of the College for Excellence. "The earlier we can get to these students and build not only their academic skills but also their confidence, motivation and self-esteem, the more likely it is they will succeed."
The presence of comprehensive academic programs such as the College for Excellence can have a major impact on student success, and it's what sets some Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) apart from others, according to Dwayne Ashley, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
"Success is measured in several ways: graduation rates, retention, fundraising success and enrollment growth. The highly successful HBCUs all possess several common characteristics of success, including at least one high-profile, signature academic program that helps attract the best and brightest students to the institution," he says.
For Renada Scott, the support and encouragement she received via the College for Excellence has made all the difference. As a freshman, she benefited from the math and science tutorials. Now she does the tutoring, helping other students with their studies. When she graduates next fall, this biochemistry major with a 3.54 grade-point average will be the first in her family to earn a college degree. She sees medical school in her future and hopes to become a pediatrician.
"ASU gave me the foundation for my life," Scott says. "I did the work, but the people here showed me the way."
Getting students on the right path is how Vernon Dandridge, a senior majoring in broadcast journalism, describes his ASU experience.
Dandridge's journey to college was a rocky one. He grew up in a low-income area of Chicago where crime and gang violence were rampant. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he says that breakup ushered in years of youthful rebellion. After graduating from Englewood High School, Dandridge went to work in a fast-food restaurant. By his own admission, he was going nowhere fast.
"I knew that wasn't the life I wanted, but I didn't know how to get where I needed to go," he recalls.
As fate would have it, ASU did.
Like Renada Scott, Dandridge is a first-generation college student. He says ASU welcomed him when few other institutions did. "My grades and my attitude weren't in the best place," Dandridge admits. "And I still wasn't sure if college was for me."
The College for Excellence assigned Dandridge two advisers, Wanda Stanwood and Sherlynn Byrd. He credits these women for pushing him to succeed when, on many occasions, failure was his preference. Dandridge contends the support from tutoring to internships to conferences showed him that anything is possible. Only a few years ago, higher education was an afterthought for Dandridge; now, graduate school is in his future.
"I come from a family of six brothers and sisters. A lot of people didn't expect me to go to college, let alone graduate. Now, my younger brother sees what I did, and he plans to go to college, too."
For some students, Alcorn State serves as a second family. When Darya Shlapak left Ukraine to attend ASU, she was overwhelmed by what awaited her in rural Mississippi. The College for Excellence offered a refuge. A mentor from the program took Shlapak under her wing, helped her navigate the unfamiliar campus, introduced her to other students, and made sure she got to classes on time and kept up with her studies.
Connecting with peers is an important part of college for all students, but especially so for international students such as Shlapak. The ASU campus is isolated from shopping malls, movie theaters and other places college students typically gather. The nearest stoplight is seven miles from the main campus. The Center for Student Services and Outcomes helps integrate students into campus life at Alcorn. The program offers a variety of opportunities designed to engage students outside the classroom and promote academic and nonacademic skills.
For example, learning labs offer after-hours instruction in all subject areas; they're held throughout the campus and in the residence halls. Other efforts, such as the International-Multicultural Program, present activities to enhance students' appreciation of diversity and develop a better understanding of their role in a global society.
"When a student comes to us, our first task is to create a 'prescription' for them," says Regina Rankin, director of Student Support Services at ASU. "Much like a job description, we give them a work plan that addresses any obstacle academic or personal so they can envision a picture of their future and what's required to get there."
The personal interest in students is the rule, says Elena Dobrynina, 35, who in 2002 transferred from Russia to Alcorn State's Natchez campus for her MBA degree. "I thought I would be a number," Dobrynina says. "It was just the opposite. From the time I arrived, teachers made themselves available. They put me at ease and were ready to offer whatever help I needed."
Today, Dobrynina works in the university relations office on ASU's main campus and serves as an International Student Recruiter for the university.
As the oldest historically and predominantly black land-grant institution in the United States, Alcorn State University is steeped in history. (See box.) Remnants of that past are still evident on ASU's main campus, which features a cemetery containing a handful of tombstones marking the graves of individuals once associated with the university. The Rev. Jeremiah Chamberlain, founder and first president of Oakland College, is buried here.
All around the cemetery, however, are visual links to the present and the future. In the past decade, the university has undertaken more than $100 million in renovation and construction projects on both its main campus and in Natchez.
ASU's physical facelift mirrors its academic improvements. In the past five years, the institution has achieved these milestones:
ASU's Pre-Professional and Pre-Graduate Program is an integral component of the university's student-success effort. Now in its fourth year, the program gives students a road map for next steps beyond their undergraduate experience. All courses and activities in the program are non-credit enrichment activities designed to increase the number of minorities who apply to, enter and complete professional or graduate school.
Among the program's components:
ASU's Pre-Professional and Pre-Graduate Program has clearly had a positive effect. The percentage of students who go on to graduate or professional school immediately after earning an undergraduate degree has more than doubled in just three years — from 25 percent in 2004 to 51 percent in 2007.
The idea that hard work and perseverance can overcome the impossible is more than a mantra at Alcorn State, says Donzell Lee, dean of Alcorn's School of Graduate Studies. It is the foundation on which Historically Black Colleges and Universities were built.
"For so long, HBCUs have been in the business of helping students who would have been forgotten elsewhere," he says.
"Demography isn't destiny. As educators, it's our job to let students know they are competing with the whole world," Lee says. "Whatever we do to take ordinary students and give them a sense of self worth, hope and direction so that they get to the next level is what we need to do."
Lee recalls an incident involving a former student who had turned in a paper with one particular word misspelled throughout the document.
"I called the student into my office the next day," Lee says. "And I was very tough on her. I told her this was not what we were aiming for at Alcorn. Effort matters, whether you are a student at this school or anywhere."
A decade later, Lee received a letter from the same student. She had written to thank him for "being tough, because it made her a better student and better person."
Lee's commitment to help students succeed is the norm among faculty members at ASU. Professors and staff are personally invested in students. They greet them on a first-name basis, supply them with their home, office and cell phone numbers, and know what's going on in their social lives. They genuinely want students to dream bigger and do more.
In some ways, this holistic, personal approach to student success is another fundamental aspect of all HBCUs. Prior to the Civil War, access to higher education for blacks was virtually nonexistent. Following the abolition of slavery, HBCUs became an avenue for blacks to attain an education that the mainstream institutions would not provide. The first HBCU, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, was founded in 1837. Today there are more than 100 HBCUs in 22 states, and they are divided fairly equally between private institutions and state-supported ones. About 90 percent of the nation's HBCUs are four-year institutions.
HBCUs have always done more with less, educating disproportionate numbers of low-income and first-generation students, says Lezlie Baskerville, president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO).
"Still, HBCUs graduate 30 percent of black students who persist to graduation; 40 percent of blacks who obtain degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields; and 50 percent of individuals who become professors," she says.
Despite these successes, HBCUs continue to face uphill battles on many issues, including securing state funding. According to James Minor, a professor at Michigan State University and an expert on HBCUs, these institutions often have been the victims of state funding policies that are, in large part, based on formulas that perpetuate inequities in higher education. Simply put, most of the state money is going to public institutions with comparatively small minority enrollments. At the same time, institutions most likely and able to serve minority students receive significantly fewer public funds.
"If the goal of higher education is to produce more citizens with postsecondary degrees, does it make sense to dedicate a larger portion of funding to institutions where the majority of students are overrepresented in public higher education?" Minor asks. "This way of funding perpetuates the degree-attainment disparity."
Minor uses North Carolina as an example. In that state, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University both individually receive more state appropriations than all five North Carolina HBCUs combined. North Carolina A&T State University (NCA&T), an HBCU in downtown Greensboro, enrolls twice the number of African-American students as the other two universities combined, but it received less than one-tenth of their combined state appropriations in 2007 — $88 million for NCA&T to a total of more than $900 million for UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State. Examined another way, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State received about $15,700 in state appropriations for each student in 2007; NCA&T and Fayetteville State University (another HBCU) received $7,800 per student, on average.
"The greatest education disparities today are among Latino and African-American students. The institutions most willing, most capable and most able to serve these groups are minority-serving institutions," Minor says. "From a public policy standpoint, it seems more reasonable to appropriately fund a sector of institutions that has a 100-year track record of educating AfricanAmerican and Latino students."
Funding for HBCUs is also being pinched at the federal level. For instance, the White House budget proposal for 2009 seeks to cut $85 million from the Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities program. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), calls that proposed cutback "disappointing," characterizing it as "a limited investment in an area that has been shown to produce such substantial returns as HBCUs." Lomax adds: "These schools are educating the teachers, health care professionals and public servants and scientists that every community needs and that will keep our nation globally competitive."
Minor echoes those sentiments.
"One of the most fascinating things about HBCUs is their philosophical approach to students. Worthiness isn't based on a GPA or a test score. Their philosophy is: 'We believe in human potential no matter what. If given the opportunity and the resources, you can be as successful as any person produced at any higher education institution.' "
Alcorn State University's Regina Rankin believes this philosophy, as well. It's her passion, she says, and it is the reason she remains tireless in her efforts to ensure that every student who enters her office leaves believing just a little bit more in his or her potential.
"Our expectation is simple," Rankin says: "A student at Alcorn is going to do better than the general student population. It's our job to be signposts for students, to show them the way to maximize their worth and dare to dream."
Patricia L. Brennan is an Indianapolis-based writer and editor with nearly two decades of communications experience related to education.