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James Minor on making organizational change to support underrepresented college students

by Jiahe Wang Xu | May 9, 2018

JJiahe Wang Xuiahe Wang Xu is a graduate student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at UW-Madison. She is interested in studying the issues that affect underrepresented populations’ transitions ​and persistence in college.

At the 2018 WISCAPE ​summit, Educating a Diverse Wisconsin, Dr. James T. Minor, assistant vice chancellor and senior strategist for academic success and external partnerships at California State University (CSU), delivered a presentation on the topic of “Challenges Facing Traditionally Underrepresented Students Seeking a College Education in Wisconsin.”

His presentation ​highlighted new perspectives and practices from the CSU system to address the issue of educational equity here in Wisconsin.

Dr. Minor was appointed to work on leadership and strategy to advance CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025, which focuses on dramatically increasing graduation rates while eliminating equity gaps between low-income underrepresented students and their peers.

In his presentation, Dr. Minor offered his perspectives within the context of the CSU system to share what needs to happen organizationally to narrow equity gaps among college populations. He began by sharing some facts about traditionally underrepresented students in the CSU system:

  • CSU is the largest and most diverse four-year system in the country, enrolling 484,000 students across 23 campuses.
  • More than half of CSU students are students of color.
  • Nearly half of CSU students are community college transfer students.
  • More than half of CSU students are first-generation students.
  • Around 80 percent of CSU students are receiving some form of financial aid.

The ultimate goal of CSU’s four-year graduation initiative is to completely eliminate the equity gap: regardless of race, ethnicity, or income, a student’s chance of graduation should be the same. The CSU Graduation Initiative 2025 is aiming for the four-year graduation rate for freshmen to reach 40 percent by 2025; by comparison, the rate was 19 percent in 2015.

To describe how this goal could be achieved, Dr. Minor ​talked about what needs to happen institutionally for students to have an effective start when they arrive on campus. He outlined several areas of importance illustrated in the diagram featured on slide 16 ​in his ​presentation.

James Minor presentation slide

Here are some highlights of actions that CSU has undertaken to improve students’ degree completion:

  • Academic Preparation: What has CSU done to help first-year students who are academically underprepared?
    • First, in order to help students to be more college-ready, faculty and high school teachers have collaboratively developed four-year English and quantitative reasoning courses, even for non-STEM major students, to ensure students practice both communication and math skills throughout high school.
    • Second, to ensure that students are placed in appropriate college-level courses, Dr. Minor has called for improvement in how colleges assess students’ placement exams and standardized test scores, using data from these exams to predict students’ performance and place them in appropriate college classes.
    • Third, Dr. Minor has called for strengthening early-start programs to provide additional academic support to students in the summer before college. To make these courses more accessible to students, they are offered both via online and through multiple physical campuses, including community colleges.
  • Student Engagement and Wellbeing: To create a safe learning environment for students, CSU has worked to prioritize students’ basic needs system-wide, including mental health, food security, and housing security. To act on this goal, CSU appointed a system-wide basic needs coordinator to oversee its 23 campuses. The system also provides community resources to campuses; for instance, each campus has its own food pantry.
  • Data Driven Decision-Making (DDDM): DDDM is an approach to business governance that values decisions that can be backed up with verifiable data. For instance, CSU has determined that any decision to implement or eliminate programs should be backed up with data about how it would affect degree completion. In addition, data on students’ performance and learning outcomes are communicated to help track students’ college preparedness and persistence. Overall, DDDM increases the speed of institutional level policy change in a large university system ​such as CSU. For example, data showed that students ​taking non-credit bearing developmental education courses are less likely to graduate; for this reason, CSU converted its developmental education courses from non-credit to credit-bearing within a one-year period.

To sum up, Dr. Minor suggested that in order to truly transform the institution with respect to equity goals, university senior administrators, faculty, and staff members should:

  • collectively take ownership and responsibility;
  • make wise use of data as defensible evidence;
  • disrupt the calendar for normal academic or administrative affairs;
  • control the narrative by actively being prepared and engaged in critical issues;
  • hold accountability at multiple levels by integration of care across campus, with not only faculty members but also various advisors; and
  • always be inspired by achieving the goal to transform other people’s lives.

Dr. Minor was able to incorporate his unique experience as both a former faculty member and administrator to explicitly point out some common “blind spots” ​among people who work ​within university systems. For example, the traditional practice of scheduling courses is based on ​what works for faculty rather than on students’ needs. ​He mentioned several times that university systems often need to “undo” established practices to achieve results. Thus, the old practices should be replaced ​with innovative ways to accommodate students’ needs. In addition, ​people who work in universities shouldn’t make excuses, but rather take responsibility to point out mistakes​, and even correct others publicly​, in order to increase the efficiency of organizational change.

In conclusion, university policies should more explicitly take into consideration students’ needs, especially those of underrepresented populations, to close the equity gap.

James Minor received his doctorate from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at UW-Madison in 1998, with Dr. Clif Conrad as his advisor. As a distinguished leader and expert in college access and completion, Dr. Minor has served as ​deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education; director of ​higher ​education ​programs at the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia​; faculty at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia; associate professor of higher education policy at Michigan State University; and as a research associate in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

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