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At various locations on campus faculty members assemble to answer students’ questions. Madison Ousley is going over physics concepts with her instructor at the time, Kyle McLelland. And Hunter Olson discusses cell biology with his instructor, Andrew Petzold.
At various locations on campus faculty members assemble to answer students’ questions. Madison Ousley is going over physics concepts with her instructor at the time, Kyle McLelland. And Hunter Olson discusses cell biology with his instructor, Andrew Petzold. Credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn for The Hechinger Report

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 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 science and health professions – but both typically lead to either instant employment or graduate school in related fields.  And key to UMR’s rise as a mint for medical talent is its partnership with the Mayo Clinic, which hires a good number of its graduates and provides research opportunities for others.

Amarachi Orakwue stands beside her poster summarizing research that she worked on at the Mayo Clinic, taken at the 2018 Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Indianapolis.
Amarachi Orakwue stands beside her poster summarizing research that she worked on at the Mayo Clinic, taken at the 2018 Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Indianapolis. Credit: Photo courtesy of Amarachi Orakwue

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 not by fellow students, but by faculty members. Unlike colleges where faculty tenure is determined in part by the research professors conduct in their fields, UMR awards tenure for research into how best to teach those disciplines. To save money on construction and maintenance, the university doesn’t own any of the buildings it occupies; it leases space for student housing and classrooms from other landlords, like the local shopping mall where much of the campus is located – above clothing stores and eateries. For a gym, students use the local YMCA. (And the university has no NCAA sports teams.)

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 that are 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.)

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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 also 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.

University of Minnesota Rochester Chancellor Lori Carrell stands outside her office. Credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn for The Hechinger Report

For those who stay, UMR has numerous services in place to overcome the kinds of 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 kind of 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. That learning community, currently numbering around 60, meets frequently and functions as a social and academic klatch where issues of race and identity come up for discussion often. Each year anywhere from 15 to 30 students in Health CORE receive grants of $4,000 to $8,000 annually.

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.” That was the seed, “and coming here was the fertilizer and the nature that made it grow.”

Student surveys show that one of the university’s most popular services is its “Just Ask” faculty tutoring service. Whereas at other colleges undergraduates visit a tutoring center run by graduate students and then head to a professor’s office hours, the Just Ask approach upends those formalities. At various locations across the campus – both in the shopping mall and in communal quarters of the student residence building – faculty members assemble in areas with high foot traffic for multiple hours a day to answer students’ questions.

Related: First-gen students at elite colleges go from lonely and overwhelmed to empowered and seeking change

The University of Minnesota Rochester campus is partly housed inside a shopping mall called Shops at University Square. Credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn for The Hechinger Report

On a late April afternoon in the residence building, Madison Ousley, a junior who finished high school in Apple Valley, Minn., spent three hours with her physics instructor going over problem sets relevant to the health sciences, such as a question on torque that asks to calculate the maximum amount a patient can lift before straining an arm. Nearby, half a dozen faculty members led tutorials for other students in other disciplines.

“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 from Cottage Grove, Minn. 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 them 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 thinks 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. Sometimes he’ll call out to passing students he knows are struggling and encourage them to visit him for an impromptu lesson.

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 one, far higher than UMR’s ratio of 75 to one.

Guiding the university’s curriculum is a set of 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 university has almost no adjuncts. Instead, a class can be taught by two or three full-time instructors to give students more attention, sometimes with the help of an upperclassman who knows the material well.

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. Called “Making Medicines,” the project requires students to review the research evidence that supported a federal agency’s approval of a drug and to write papers critiquing the official research. “That’s very difficult for students. If it’s been published in a paper, it’s gospel,” said Kelsey Metzger, an assistant professor of biology. Students receive scores for both their writing and their mastery of biological principles.

Related: OPINION: Five reasons colleges can enroll more low-income students

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 that is blocks away in downtown Rochester. Several dozen of UMR’s students work in research roles at the Mayo Clinic, where they’re paired with faculty and often present their own findings.

Samantha Kreps, a Health CORE student, has been working on determining whether patients with limited English skills understand the end-of-life codes medical staff use. “Patients will say ‘do not resuscitate,’ but is that really what they want?” she said. Orakwue researched whether a breathing device to treat newborns leads to asthma later in life. Modawi volunteers at the center on polycystic kidney disease, where he analyzes the slides of zebrafish for treatment clues.

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. The program has space for more students, said Troy Tynsky, an administrator at the Mayo Clinic school. Larger enrollment at UMR could mean more students receiving Mayo certifications and jobs there, he said.

UMR hasn’t solved every wrinkle with its model, especially the university’s unusual physical layout. The campus has no meal plan, and no dining hall where all students can eat. A recent student survey showed that many eat just one meal a day. The university intends to create a meal plan, such as a system with nearby food vendors that would give students access to prepaid food.

Whether the university can grow and still keep its model is an open question. The same goes for whether the model itself can be adopted by other campuses. (UMR’s faculty are in the midst of a five-year study to analyze which of its services contribute the most to student success.)

Parry Telander, head of student success coaching at UMR, emphasizes that if the university is to enroll more students, it will need to hire more advisers. And Bright, the math instructor, said he  doesn’t know if the student relationship component “can be developed in the same way at another institution as it is here.”

Carrell believes 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 first stage would increase undergraduate enrollment by around 50 percent, to 750 students, in the next two or three years, Carrell said, which would require leasing additional housing space soon. While state support of UMR’s growth is key, the city of Rochester has also allocated $25.3 million for the university to use on capital projects. (Carrell said advocates in the city had been lobbying for UMR’s creation since the 1960s.) The expansion is mirroring that of the city itself, which is in the early stages of a massive $5.6 billion economic development initiative centered on health and wellness.

The University of Minnesota system has a new president, Joan Gabel, who will take the helm on July 1. “We absolutely plan to use the lessons learned at UMR and import them” to close achievement gaps, she said.

Eric 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 of 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.” That status quo has seen improvements, too, Kaler said, pointing to the flagship campus in Twin Cities, where the four-year graduation rate rose from 54 percent to 71 percent between 2011 and 2018.

Keeping UMR’s model sustainable is another worry. “Scaling it and being able to fund at the level we fund until we scale it are the two concerns I have,” he said. Kaler points out that other public universities might struggle to replicate some of UMR’s outcomes without large employer partners like Mayo. The university’s emphasis on a fast-growing and well-paying job sector may also distinguish it from other campuses, he added.

Carrell believes the model that UMR has developed, which focuses spending and attention more on student supports than on budget-guzzlers like athletics and construction costs, 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?”

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