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After the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reviewed the reasons some students were being prevented from registering, it loosened the rules. And after discovering that scholarships and loans were not quite covering some students’ bills, the university developed an emergency fund for retention grants to help them re-enroll.

These efforts are two of the 15 recommendations in a project called the Moon Shot for Equity, a plan that seeks to eliminate college graduation equity gaps by 2030. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was among the first schools in the country to adopt the plan last year. Chancellor Mark Mone said even these small changes have already helped nearly 500 students remain enrolled when they otherwise may have been derailed in their pursuit of a degree. 

“There are a lot of reasons why people don’t complete—it’s actually a miracle so many people do complete,” Mone said. “There are 100 off-ramps.”

The project, designed by Tom Sugar, vice president for partnerships at EAB, the education consulting firm that will support colleges in the Moon Shot effort, is an effort to address systemic pitfalls in higher education and eliminate equity gaps in access and completion.

“There are a lot of reasons why people don’t complete—it’s actually a miracle so many people do complete. There are 100 off-ramps.”

Mark Mone, chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

At public colleges across the country, white students are two and a half times more likely to graduate than Black students and 60 percent more likely than Latino students, according to federal data on the six-year completion rate for first-time, full-time students. The Moon Shot program is specifically designed to close gaps for Black, Latino, Native American, first generation and other historically underserved students by 2030.

“One of the great paradigm shifts that has occurred with colleges that are really making headway is they no longer consider the students to be broken who come to them,” said Sugar, who was a co-founder of the advocacy group Complete College America. Instead, they now “take a clear look at the structures and bad practices and policies that were actually inhibiting student success.

“People want to do the work,” he added, “they want to get on with the transformation, but they need help.”

To help, the Moon Shot project offers 15 concrete steps to transform institutions, Sugar said. Colleges can only join the project if they commit to implementing the strategies.

Related: Predictive analytics are boosting college graduation rates, but do they also invade privacy and reinforce racial inequities?

The strategies, first implemented last year at a handful of colleges in the Milwaukee area, will now be tackled by clusters of colleges in northern Kentucky and southern Pennsylvania.

In Kentucky, most students who attend Gateway Community & Technical College and Northern Kentucky University come from the surrounding region and stay there after graduation. So the two colleges’ leaders see the Moon Shot program as an investment in their community.

Ashish Vaidya, president of Northern Kentucky University, said the institution has a responsibility not only to transform the lives of its students, but to also better the region as a whole.

“Why are we doing this work?” Vaidya said. “We’re doing this because mobility is the American dream.”

Gateway Community & Technical College’s president, Fernando Figueroa, said he plans to increase recruiting efforts at 10 school districts in the northern Kentucky and metropolitan Cincinnati area that have large populations of students of color. The effort at Gateway, Figueroa said, will span from recruitment to career placement.

“We’ll know by the kinds of jobs, not just the graduation, not just the recruitment, but also the kinds of jobs that our graduates will be getting, the kinds of opportunities that will be opening up,” he said. “That’s when you start to see traction, right? When you start seeing [our graduates on] boards, CEOs, VPs, and the C suite, and superintendents. And when you start seeing that change, then we’ll know that we’ve made it as a community.”

The Moon Shot program’s guidance addresses four main areas: leadership and campus culture; access and enrollment; academic policy and practices; and student support and belonging. Participating colleges are required to:

  • Provide change management training for leadership
  • Provide equity-focused professional development
  • Assess campus climate
  • Partner with more community-based organizations
  • Offer second changes to adult learners
  • Audit registration-holds system
  • Offer emergency retention grants for in-need students
  • Assess developmental or remedial course system, offer more courses for credit
  • Create degree maps
  • Develop clearer pathways for transfer students
  • Streamline student support services
  • Prioritize student sense of belonging

If colleges commit to implementing the requirements, EAB, the education company that houses the Moon Shot for Equity project, will provide leadership training, mentorship opportunities and other support services.

Related: Graduation rates for college students could fall again due to coronavirus

Ande Durojaiye, vice president of Miami University’s regional campuses, said he hopes the work they plan to do through the Moon Shot project will create a lasting impact.

“I don’t like to base things solely on the numbers – when we base it solely on the numbers, we could quite possibly miss something,” he said. “So we’re going to track those numbers and make sure we’re trending in the right direction. But, you know, thinking about the culture and climate within what we’re doing – a big portion of the Moon Shot is those equity best practices and building a culture of equity on our campuses.”

Sugar thinks the Moon Shot goal of eliminating equity gaps by 2030 is achievable because, he said, the steps are detailed and the amount of discovery necessary for these colleges is minimal.

“Now, are we going to have our struggles and our moments of conflict? I’m sure we will,” Sugar said. “We’re trying to do something at a scale that’s unprecedented. But I’m convinced that the right people are in the right places, with the right level of collective will at this point to accomplish the goal.”

Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network, said that because students often attend college in a place-based way, the regional collaborative approach of the Moon Shot for Equity project could be useful.

DeBaun said he’d like to see the plan include more on strengthening high school-to-college pipelines, including high school advising, career readiness counseling and support for students the summer after they graduate from high school to ensure a smooth transition to college.

He thinks the program could be “the first step in a long road to closing equity gaps across the country.”

This story about equity gaps was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. 

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