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Q&A with Nebraska Wesleyan University

Nebraska Wesleyan University is committed to graduating students with more than academic credentials: their commitment to experiential learning means that 100 percent of NWU graduates do internships, conduct research, study away from campus or conduct service learning.

Located in Lincoln, Nebraska, the 120-year-old university is a College Possible bridge partner with a mission to ensure “its students develop a sense of individual worth and become useful and serving members of the human community.”

What do you see is the greatest challenge facing your institution in the next 5-10 years?

Nebraska Wesleyan, as well as all higher education institutions, must evolve and adapt to the needs of an increasingly diverse and first-generation population of students. The issues framing this challenge for higher education are likely familiar: low completion rate for baccalaureate students, a lower completion rate for Pell Grant recipients and an even lower completion rate for underrepresented students. The demographic reality is that Nebraska Wesleyan University will be enrolling greater numbers of first generation, Pell-eligible and underrepresented students.

Our mission is to embrace every student and rise to the challenge of successfully overcoming the intractable hurdle of poverty, and setting students on a higher socioeconomic path toward prosperity. Our K-12 school system plays a significant role in building a college-going, college-readiness culture, yet they, too, face and must overcome insufficient and diminishing resources. We also need the support of our community organizations, which serve as a conduit to the families and students most challenged by poverty within their own home, school and municipality.

The greatest challenge will be aligning our schools and communities, as well as federal, state and local resources to be most effective in addressing our families and students.

In your experience, what is the number one challenge students from low-income backgrounds face in college?

These students continually confront financial uncertainty and doubt they “deserve” a college education. Many students from low-income backgrounds choose to secure employment rather than invest in college because their most basic needs require that income. Once in college, these students face the stigma of poverty. Without discretionary income to be engaged socially, such students are ostracized as they must struggle to afford books and fundamental supplies. Unfortunately, personal embarrassment and financial fatigue too often prevail and impede college persistence. At NWU, it is our intention to provide the personal attention and encouragement for low-income students to persist through graduation and pursue rewarding careers and fulfilling lives.

Is there any difference in how you or your institution serve students from low-income backgrounds?

Nebraska Wesleyan has established Pathways to NWU scholarship and academic articulation programs with community colleges. In addition to the financial guarantee of a scholarship, the program ensures low-income students the academic advising that streamlines their transition from a community college to NWU. Students who choose to begin at a community college will make a successful transition to NWU both financially and academically.

NWU also launched a need-based, full-tuition scholarship program for low-income students. Access NWU provides the scholarship to any Nebraska student whose estimated family contribution is less than $1,000 and whose academic qualifications include a 3.0 high school GPA and a composite of 25 on the ACT.

In addition, NWU created the Cornerstone Scholarship that is a test-optional program. The high school GPA is well-documented as the most predictive criteria for college persistence. With test bias also correlated with income levels, the Cornerstone Scholarship ensures low-income students are recognized for their academic achievement in the classroom and removes the low self-esteem associated with a low test score. Students with a high school GPA of 3.5 or higher are honored with the scholarship.

Can you tell me about an initiative you’ve taken onto improve your retention and graduation rates?

In the fall of 2017, NWU implemented a financial incentive grant for all currently enrolled Pell recipients. The program offers an additional $2,000 in grant aid for Pell students returning to NWU in the fall of 2018. The grant covers more than all of the annual rate increases in tuition, fees and residence hall costs, which ensures Pell recipients will not incur the stress of the rising cost of their NWU education.

Does your institution have strategic goals, and can you share those that might align with your partnership with College Possible?

Two of our strategic goals are enrollment growth and improved retention. We regard College Possible as an important partner to achieve both goals and, in fact, our scholarship model was adapted to better serve and attract College Possible students. We consider our College Possible scholarship model as a sound investment because of the proven retention model College Possible provides. We believe this represents an important example for how community organizations and higher education can partner to change the trajectory for attaining a college degree among underserved students.

How have you worked with College Possible to serve students?

As a Bridge Partner, Nebraska Wesleyan has benefitted from developing strong, personal relationships with the College Possible Omaha staff and coaches. Our partnership has involved direct access to events, programs and staffing to ensure everyone involved in mentoring students understands how NWU is aligned with College Possible.

Has your partnership with College Possible led to any changes or initiatives across campus?

NWU’s diversity in its student body is increasing. Of the College Possible full-tuition recipients entering in the fall of 2018, more than 70 percent are underrepresented students. On April 21, 2018, NWU announced plans to hire a new staff person dedicated to serving underrepresented students because, as this segment of our student body grows, an investment in staffing and resources is important to their support and success.

How important is your partnership with College Possible in meeting your goals?

It instills a “mission-centric” culture within the admissions office and the NWU campus community. People at NWU want to make a difference in the life of every student. We do so through being personally engaged and invested in each student’s success. The mission of College Possible inspires our staff and faculty to be partners in serving underrepresented students. Our partnership impacts our culture and speaks to our souls as we seek the intrinsic fulfillment of helping students overcome challenges and find success.

How has your partnership with College Possible changed since the beginning?

In the past year, we researched the profile of College Possible applicants to NWU and reviewed the outcome of their college decision. Our research revealed the students were exceptionally strong academically, carrying a 3.8 average GPA. Yet, their standardized test scores were modest. This data guided us in redesigning our scholarship policy for College Possible students. I am proud of our decision to commit 12 need-based, full-tuition scholarships for College Possible students.

Similar to the test-optional admission policy and Cornerstone Scholarship implemented at NWU, we chose to base eligibility on the high school GPA, regardless of the standardized test score. Our recruiters worked closely with College Possible coaches to identify students who best fit NWU. We are confident the students benefitting from our full-tuition scholarship, combined with the proven resources and support of the College Possible model will result in great success. We take great joy in our shared work of building a better future for each of the students we serve.

Our thanks to William G. Motzer Jr. vice president for Enrollment Management, for taking part in this interview.

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