ROCHESTER, Minn. — Amarachi Orakwue felt stifled during high school in Minnesota, having immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in 2010. She “stuck out like a sore thumb,” she said, as one of the few students of color in class.
“I never thought about the concept of, like, ‘We want you to feel like you belong here,’ ” she said. “That was foreign. I didn’t even know that existed.”
That changed when she enrolled at the University of Minnesota at Rochester, a 10-year-old public university that has been closing achievement gaps by following a playbook that prioritizes student engagement.
“I was finally able to express who I was,” she said. Now a rising senior, Orakwue has met other students who previously struggled to fit in. Together, they can “laugh at whatever we went through” and plot their futures as health-care professionals.
In a time of stubborn performance gaps between white students and students of color, and between rich and poor, this university of just over 500 undergraduates may offer a script for how to ensure that students from different backgrounds graduate at similar rates.
It’s also posting these results in a field that sinks the ambitions and GPAs of many students elsewhere: health sciences. The university offers just two bachelor’s degrees — in health sciences and health professions — but both typically lead to instant employment or graduate school in related fields. And key to the university’s rise is its partnership with the Mayo Clinic, which hires a good number of the school’s graduates and provides research opportunities for others.
The university’s chancellor, Lori Carrell, has a mission to make sure that “all of the goodies” found at first-rate universities “don’t just go to the honors students, don’t just go to liberal arts, small places with great endowments,” she said. “Across the country, the disparities racially and with Pell-eligible students and first-generation students are an abomination, and educators should not sleep at night until it changes.”
UMR, the newest of five campuses in the University of Minnesota system, attributes its success to a host of innovations. Its student-adviser ratio is much lower than at other schools, and it boasts a tutoring center staffed by faculty members. Unlike colleges where faculty tenure is determined in part by the research that professors conduct, UMR awards tenure for research into how best to teach those disciplines. To save money on construction and maintenance, the university doesn’t own the buildings it occupies; it leases space for student housing and classrooms from other landlords, such as the local shopping mall where much of the campus is located — above clothing stores and restaurants. For a gym, students use the local YMCA.
The university has closed its achievement gaps in several categories. Students of color, students who receive Pell grants meant for low-income college-goers and students who are the first in their families to attend college have average four-year graduation rates virtually identical to the university’s overall four-year graduation rate of 56 percent, which is the average of their graduation rates since the inaugural class of 2013. (By comparison, the national four-year graduation rate for public universities is 37 percent.)
At UMR, a third of the students are people of color, matching the composition of K-12 students in Minnesota. Its share of Pell students is 39 percent. UMR casts a wider admissions net than more selective schools — it admits half its applicants, and their average ACT score is 24 (higher than the 2018 national average of 20.8 but lower than the average for students admitted to Minnesota’s Twin Cities flagship campus).
And students who don’t graduate aren’t necessarily turning their backs on higher education. Three-quarters of those who left the university without finishing this year enrolled in another college or university. Most leave because they decide the college’s singular focus on health sciences isn’t for them. “Love us or not, but we’re either for you or not,” said Brett Hartnagel, the director of admissions at UMR.
For those who stay, UMR has services to overcome obstacles that often derail student achievement, especially for students from underrepresented communities.
One is a set of “living learning communities” that group students by their interests or common experiences. They were created to maintain UMR’s momentum in closing the achievement gap, to be a social adhesive as the campus grows so that students don’t feel lost. Among these is a program called Health CORE for students who are low-income, first-generation college students or people of color.
For Abdalla Modawi, who moved to the United States from Sudan as a 9-year-old and will be a senior at UMR in the fall, Health CORE rekindled a closeness to his Sudanese past after he heard other students in the program speak eloquently about their backgrounds. “I felt embarrassed of where I came from; I don’t know why,” he said. “It’s just because you want to blend in. My dad always wanted us to remember where we came from.”
Student surveys show that one of the university’s most popular services is its “Just Ask” faculty tutoring service. At other colleges, undergraduates visit a tutoring center run by graduate students and then head to a professor’s office hours. Just Ask upends those formalities. At locations across campus, faculty members assemble in areas with high foot traffic for hours a day to answer students’ questions.
“Having an area where your professor can literally be lounging in a beanbag or just chilling in a chair, it’s a lot more approachable, and so you can easily feel free to go talk to them and get help with anything you need,” said Hunter Olson, a rising junior.
He was working with his anatomy and physiology professor to brainstorm an illustration of what happens when human cells are exposed to the chemical warfare agent Sarin gas. His goal was to build a physical prototype that can teach students how cells work by showing what happens when a cellular calamity occurs.
Math instructor Jered Bright spends up to 10 hours a week at Just Ask, he said, in addition to his teaching duties. He says the service is particularly helpful for students who are unfamiliar with college, such as first-generation students too intimidated to seek tutoring or visit professors during office hours.
Bright can aid struggling students further by tipping off their “student success” coaches, who function as both academic and career advisers. These coaches stay with students for the entire time they’re at UMR, a novelty in student coaching and one that seems to engender great trust between adviser and student. “When it’s move-in day, coaches are there on a Saturday,” said Rachel Jones, a student success coach. A national survey in 2011 showed that small campuses typically had a student-adviser ratio of more than 200 to 1, far higher than UMR’s ratio of 75 to 1.
Guiding the university’s curriculum are recommendations advanced by the Association of American Colleges & Universities and meant to improve student learning. Tia Brown McNair, a vice president of the association, said national research showed that “the highest determining factor of student success is a caring educator,” adding that UMR has “actually embraced that very well.”
The association endorses common intellectual experiences. At UMR, virtually all students take the same core courses in their first two years, a blend of science and humanities that includes sociology, Spanish and writing along with biology and chemistry.
The association also recommends writing-intensive courses. In UMR’s biology and English courses, instructors assign their first-year students research papers that weave together both disciplines.
For real-world experience, UMR’s students have enviable access to research and professional training at the Mayo Clinic, the largest employer in Minnesota and a global powerhouse in medical treatment.
Several dozen UMR students work in research roles at the Mayo Clinic, where they’re paired with faculty and often present their own findings.
The partnership is symbiotic. Through the students it trains, Mayo has a steady stream of talent it can hire, especially students of color, which is a priority for Leon Clark, chair of research administration at the Mayo Clinic. “UMR’s success, I think, is critically important to Mayo and our future,” he said.
About 30 to 40 students a year graduate with the health professions bachelor’s degree by taking their final two years of courses at the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences.
Whether the university can expand and still keep its model is an open question. The same goes for whether the model itself can be adopted by other campuses.
Carrell says it can be done. She is ushering the university through a growth spurt that could see it triple the number of undergraduates — a plan formally approved by the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents at its May meeting.
The University of Minnesota System has a new president, Joan T.A. Gabel, who will take the helm Monday. “We absolutely plan to use the lessons learned at UMR and import them” to close achievement gaps, she said.
Eric W. Kaler, the outgoing president who has led the system since 2011, sounded less bullish. Asked whether UMR’s model could expand statewide or even nationally, he said, “I think the answer is, yes and no.”
Some campuses might want to adopt the student-focused instruction at UMR, he said, but he doesn’t think “it’s going to displace what I’d say is the status quo that we see now.”
Carrell said the model UMR has developed is clearly responsible for reducing academic achievement gaps.
These results “should not be a shocker,” she said. “The shocker is, why aren’t we all doing this?”
This story about reducing college achievement gaps was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.