Four area higher ed institutions commit to closing graduation equity gaps over next 10 years

The Higher Education Regional Alliance represents the region’s private and public universities and technical colleges.

Milwaukee Area Technical College, the University of Wisconsin­-Milwaukee, Carthage College and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside have joined a national initiative aimed at helping more underrepresented students of color and other historically underserved students graduate from college over the next decade. 

The college and universities have signed on to the “Moon Shot for Equity” initiative led by education firm EAB, which aims to end equity gaps in higher education by 2030. 

In the seven-county Milwaukee region, 56% of white students earned a degree or certificate within six years in 2020, compared to 32% of Hispanic students and 20% of Black students, according to data compiled by the Higher Education Regional Alliance. The goal is to eliminate that disparity, the school leaders announced Wednesday. 

Carthage, MATC, UWM and UW-Parkside comprise the first regional consortium of higher ed institutions to join the national initiative. The effort represents a roughly $8 million commitment over the next five years, said UWM chancellor Mark Mone. 

“Wisconsin is dead last in the country in the high school equity gap for Black students, and in the bottom seven of all 50 states for Hispanic students,” he said. “These gaps continue into higher education, and we find this unacceptable. We need to provide fair and equitable access to college and successful graduation for all our students.”

The partnership with EAB will give the four schools access to technology, including a “student success management” software platform that allows advisors and faculty to monitor and reach to students before they fall off track from graduation or take the wrong courses for their degree. 

The initiative includes several other components, including providing equity-mindedness training to more than 400 people across the four institutions and establishing common academic pathways to facilitate student transfers between two- and four-year institutions. The goal is to address the trend of students starting at one campus with plans to continue their degree at a four-year university but then discovering their credits don’t transfer. 

In all, the four schools said they will adopt 15 best practices that are backed by research to help eliminate barriers to students’ achievement. 

The region’s higher ed leaders are looking to Georgia State University as a successful model of reducing achievement gaps. Georgia State boosted its graduation rate by 23 percentage points over 10 years, and was able to eliminate race and income as predictors of college completion. Representatives from the university and Houston GPS will serve as mentors to the Milwaukee-area schools. 

“At MATC, we often point to Georgia State University; if they can do it, so can we,” said Vicki Martin, president of MATC.

The four Milwaukee-area institutions said they will also support underserved high school students by providing them with resources and information on how to identify best-fit universities, search for scholarships and connect with counselors. 

The new initiative ties into work that’s already underway by Higher Education Regional Alliance (HERA) — the collaborative representing the region’s 18 higher ed institions and a few community partners — as part of a $500,000 Complete College America grant.

“We are building on what we have been working on and we’re beginning to see gains,” said Debbie Ford, chancellor of UW-Parkside.

Ultimately, the project will support the region’s workforce, the higher ed leaders said. John Swallow, president and CEO of Carthage College, noted that the Milwaukee area has a 40,000 employee shortage in sectors including business, engineering, health care and IT. He said the initiative will generate more college graduates in less time for less money, and with better career outcomes for students. 

“We have dealt for the last decade with one of the most vexing talent shortages; we have left more people behind than we would ever like to see,” Mone said. “So this is going to help employers, this is going to help students and ultimately it’s going to help our region significantly in terms of opening the doors to prosperity, which we know is the foundation of education.”

Colleges and universities across the country face financial crises this year, as the pandemic has reduced revenue from housing, dining and athletics, while driving up costs related to testing and other health protocols.

Despite those headwinds, Mone stressed that now is the right time for the schools to sign on to the graduation equity initiative.

“Especially in a time of the most significant financial challenges that higher education has collectively faced in decades, if not forever, we think this is the right time, this is the absolutely necessary time to bring about these types of changes at our institutions,” he said. “It simply unacceptable to do anything less than make these types of investments.”

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