Q&A with Gina Hausknecht, associate dean for student academics and the John William King Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Coe College.
Being ranked in the top 20 percent of U.S. colleges and universities came as no surprise to those who work, study and partner with Coe College. The small liberal arts college in Iowa prides itself on its commitment to academics, its ability to prepare students for life and career after college and its focus on building a diverse and inclusive environment for learners of all backgrounds.
A College Possible Catalyze partner since fall 2018, Coe College has already served 106 students through this collaboration designed to support more low-income students to and through college graduation.
What is your institution’s commitment to enrolling and graduating students from diverse backgrounds? How is this exemplified in your recruitment, acceptance and support approaches?
Coe is committed to a diverse campus. As the geographic, racial and ethnic diversity of the college has increased over the past several years, the support network has grown to meet the needs of a changing student body. Diversity and inclusion at Coe includes a senior diversity officer, a multicultural affairs coordinator, trained student mentors and an active Committee on Diversity, which is comprised of faculty, students and staff from across the college. New student organizations on campus over the past two years include I’m First, a first-generation college student group; Latinx; and RISE (Rights Inclusion Support and Education), a group founded by students with disabilities to support each other and educate the campus.
What do you see is the greatest challenge facing your institution in the next 5-10 years?
Like other schools in our sector, Coe wrestles with the need to demonstrate our value proposition to a college-going population unfamiliar with the benefits of a liberal arts education, an increasing proportion of which belong to groups that historically complete college at lower rates. American higher education as a whole is facing unprecedented challenges in terms of economics, technology, government funding and student demographics, and these conditions are especially difficult for residential liberal arts colleges. Although abundant evidence demonstrates that a broad-based liberal education remains the very best form of career preparation —as well as the foundation of our democratic system— the effects of the recession linger in the skepticism of students and families about an education that doesn’t point obviously and immediately toward employment. We are further hampered by a smaller enrollment and lower per-student tuition revenue than comparable colleges.
In your experience, what is the number one challenge students from low-income backgrounds face in college?
It is often difficult for low-income students (especially but not only those from first-generation families) to fully understand or accept the value of investment in the college years. Two of the most debilitating results of this are working too many hours at off-campus jobs and hesitating to take on modest debt. Because of the need to earn money while in college —whether during the school year or over the summer break— low-income students often use fewer of the enriching resources available, e.g. networking, volunteering, informational interviews or job shadows, off-campus trips, conference participation, research, study abroad, or internships that involve transportation they can’t access or afford.
Is there any difference in how you or your institution serves students from low-income backgrounds?
Coe offers a robust and complementary suite of resources. These include our TRIO SSS program which, in addition to providing academic and social support for low-income students, also offers challenge grants linked to use of available resources. Our financial aid office works carefully and closely to identify and respond to students whose financial needs change while they are at Coe. College Possible is providing invaluable on-the-ground guidance for students navigating the financial stresses of college. I’m First, our first-generation student organization, is reaching students with whom the staff struggle to connect: a recent FAFSA workshop which I’m First sponsored (and our College Possible coaches attended) had many more students in attendance than the financial aid office has seen when they have offered these workshops directly. Last year we added a partial credit course, Financial Literacy for the College Student, to the curriculum and are offering it every term.
Can you tell me about a really interesting or innovative initiative you’ve taken on, apart from College Possible, to improve your retention and graduation rates among the entire student body? Among students from low-income backgrounds?
In 2017, Coe was invited by HLC to participate in a Lumina Foundation-funded project, Testing Student Success Data Initiative. The 18 schools in this initiative, ranging across Carnegie classifications, were each charged with testing success variables on our campuses. Rick Eichhorn, Henry B. Tippie Professor of Economics and Business Administration, who serves as the college’s retention data analyst and co-chairs our Retention Data Group with me, and I carried out a study of those factors correlating most strongly with retention at Coe.
We identified three primary risk factors for the fall 2016 incoming class, two of which are about academic performance in the first term (related to first-term GPA and first-term credits earned) and one of which relates to financial security. We have continued to study these risk factors and are finding some consistent patterns around which we are now designing interventions. For example, these data have led us to strengthen our training of new student advisors and add some elements to our First Year Seminar instructor training; to assign staff mentors to every First Year Seminar; and to enhance communications between our financial aid office and first-year students experiencing financial stress.
Does your institution have strategic goals, and can you share those that might align with your partnership with College Possible?
Coe is in the third year of its strategic plan, A Bolder Coe. The plan’s five central initiatives are to increase enrollment: to be more diverse, especially among faculty and staff; to be financially stable and sustainable; to be known for our distinctive combination of traditional liberal arts disciplines and professional programs; and to be recognized for the advantages of our Cedar Rapids locations and the regional partnerships that offer Coe students distinctive opportunities for learning and career preparation. Increasing access to a college degree is central to our mission and it always has been.
We expect our partnership with College Possible will help us move toward these goals. We anticipate partnering with College Possible will improve retention and therefore stabilize enrollment, which is important for our overall financial sustainability. I am eager to see the College Possible coaches help more of our students take advantage of the opportunities offered by our location in a thriving mid-size city. Although this is perhaps an indirect path to a more diverse faculty and staff, the partnership with College Possible announces our serious institutional commitment to making college work for all of our students and especially those from historically under-served groups.
How important is your partnership with College Possible in meeting your goals?
While we are still in the first months of having College Possible coaches on our campus, I am already hearing from students —particularly those at academic risk— about meetings with their coaches. They clearly feel supported and assisted, and the coaches are helping them with practical decision-making about finances and persistence at Coe. It is already abundantly clear that the College Possible coaches reach students that professional staff and faculty struggle to connect with, and reach them in ways we can’t. There is clearly no substitute for near-peers who have lived the most challenging dimensions of their experience, particularly for first-year students struggling to acclimate to residential college living.
By Jeron Schmidt