May 112010
 

By Jim Sojourner

Collegian Special Report

Like the stars that illuminate the hunter Orion in the night sky, for Paul Thayer, a successful minority graduation program is like a constellation of bright, interconnected points of diversity light.

And with a graduation gap between minority and non-minority students that has consistently been one of the smallest among its peer universities, Thayer, CSU’s associate vice president for student affairs, said CSU is well on its way to building that constellation.

According to data from the Education Trust, a research organization dedicated to eliminating the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students, for five out of the six years between 2002 and 2007, which is the most up-to-date data available, CSU ranked in the top three universities among 12 other peer universities –– 11 in 2007 when Iowa State University was not included –– for having one of the smallest minority graduation gaps.

Since 2002, the data, based on six-year graduation cohorts, shows CSU’s success in keeping the graduation gap in the 7 to 8 percent range, compared with peer gaps that range from about 10 to 12 percent in the mid-ranked schools to more than 20 percent on the high end during the six-year period.

The notable exception to CSU’s success is a 16.3 percent gap anomaly in 2005, which placed CSU 10th among its peers and sounded alarm bells, Thayer said.

Despite extensive statistical analysis and interviews with numerous minority students and the campus diversity resources, CSU was never able to determine what caused the gap to widen suddenly for just one year. But because the number of non-minority students is so high, Thayer said, the non-minority graduation rates usually stay in the same range, while minority graduation rates, which are based on a much smaller population, fluctuate more easily.

Despite the one bad year, though, other data sources confirm CSU is succeeding in shrinking the graduation gap.

The latest data from the Integrated Postsecondary Data System website on the group of students that entered CSU in 2002 and graduated by 2008 shows CSU with an overall graduation rate of 63 percent.

For specific minority groups, graduation rates broke down like this:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 57 percent
  • Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander: 62 percent
  • Black or African American: 57 percent
  • Hispanic or Latino: 56 percent
  • White: 64 percent, and
  • Race/ethnicity unknown: 62 percent

According to CSU’s own internal research, for the 2009 group, 66 percent of non-minority students had graduated compared with 59 percent of non-minority students –– a gap of about 7 percent.

In 2007, CSU’s research shows that gap to be only 3.8 percent.

Those numbers and trends, Thayer said, are impressive considering the gap was more than 20 percent when he first arrived at CSU in 1979, and it reflects the large strides the university has made since the early 1980s.

But although Thayer said those numbers are cause for celebration, he said CSU has remained self-critical, even going so far as to create a brand new vice president for diversity position this semester intended to target diversity issues on campus, and said the university’s job doesn’t end until the gap is gone.

The problem though, is that eliminating that gap is easier said than done, and Thayer said no one simple solution exists.
“There just is no silver bullet,” Thayer said before pausing to reconsider.

“We’ve got the silver bullet, it’s just a really big and complicated one,” he said.

Larimer County’s roots lie embedded in its agricultural past, and its racially homogenous make-up today reflects that history, which is one reason CSU’s goal of creating a complete diversity constellation remains elusive and complicated.

Helping minority students to feel comfortable and to find academic success in a non-diverse community like Fort Collins requires effort and ingenuity, Thayer said.

One such solution, he said, is CSU’s ethnic-specific advocacy offices and cultural centers.

In contrast to many universities that lump each diverse group of students into a single minority student services initiative, Thayer said CSU’s diversity offices –– the Black/African American Cultural Center, the Asian/Pacific American Cultural Center, Native American Student Services and El Centro Student Services –– provide minority students the opportunity to plug into a familiar community that can meet their specific needs.

According to the BAACC website, the center provides a family-like support system for students, hosts cultural events like the annual Black History Month celebration and works to enhance the CSU community’s understanding of diverse culture.

Bruce Smith, director for the Black/African American Cultural Center, said the cultural centers play an important role helping minority students create diverse communities.

“I think the cultural centers are a vital piece of the creating diversity puzzle here on campus,” Smith said in an e-mail.

“We are certainly more than the ‘home away from home’ mantra that one frequently hears in regards to the centers. And we provide educational opportunities to all students and community members.”

Even more than minority-specific initiatives, Thayer said CSU needs to reach out to and involve minority students in CSU’s diverse initiatives and programs, which abound on campus.

For example:

The Key Communities are learning communities designed to help first and second year students transition into college through activities such as service-learning, leadership development and interdisciplinary class work.

Students as Leaders in Science involves science students in science-specific, hands-on leadership, community service and research initiatives.

These programs and others like them on campus, he said, unite minority students with groups that teach real-world skills and provide students with the important leadership and support networks they need to succeed.

But no matter how successful an individual program is, for CSU to accomplish its goal, Thayer said programs need to work together, and that task will fall on the vice president of diversity position, which Thayer said should act as a maestro –– a champion of diversity, as he called it –– directing each of the university’s diversity efforts to act in concert.

“Coordination, visibility and vision are all going to be enhanced,” he said.

The new position, Thayer said, indicates that CSU has its sights on the right issues and is committed to creating the culture of diversity –– in classrooms and out of classrooms, before CSU and at CSU –– necessary for a diversity constellation to shine.

“The thing about culture is everyone has to participate in it to really be a part of the culture,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s just an add-on.”

And with a growing network of faculty, staff, students and resource groups that Thayer said is dedicated to creating and maintaining a diverse campus culture, that constellation might be starting to peak through the night sky.

Editorials Editor Jim Sojourner can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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