Driving Social Mobility at Dominican University

powered by Sounder

Higher education likes to think of itself as an engine of social mobility.

But how deeply do we actually believe it?

Sure, mountains of data support what a degree can do for a student, especially a student who comes from a less-privileged background. Historically, though, we’ve valued things like SAT scores that are selecting out the students whose social mobility benefits the most from a degree.

What would it take to create an academic shift that widens doors of access?

Dr. Barrington Price, Vice President for Student Success and Engagement at Dominican University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss social mobility strategies as a deliberate enrollment growth practice.

How to Recruit the Unlikely, Right-fit Student

To recruit unlikely students who fit well with our schools, we have to agree on three fundamental truths:

  • All students can experience academic success.

Academic success has nothing to do with ability. Instead, it aligns more with students having had time to develop the academic skills that they need for the challenges of higher ed. 

Within that construct, how do we think about restructuring learning environments that tap into these neural pathways we know exist for students? How can we find ways to relate academic content to the way in which students think and engage in their everyday experiences?

  • Learning is a biological process.

Psychologists have told us how the process of learning and memory retrieval works. We know that all students can learn. Why? Because they continue to grow and mature as individuals. So learning is not a barrier.

  • The way students relate to the process of learning influences their success.

A student’s perception of their own ability drives their academic success. How do they conceptualize themselves as learners? As a good math student or as a poor math student, for instance? 

If we can restructure the way students think collectively about how they see themselves as learners — as capable and not as deficient — these students can experience success.

Helping Students Access Professional Opportunities

Part of social mobility means that students haven’t had access to professional opportunities while growing up. They haven’t seen professionals in an array of different disciplines. And so, they come to us in higher education with very narrow perspectives on what it is they could be. 

We often ask 17 and 18 year olds what they’re going to do with their lives — urging them to make a decision and then placing valuation on that decision. But many of them may have had very little access to professional opportunities, or individuals that are doing quite different professions.

Consequently, we need to help students explore different industries. Today’s nursing student might be tomorrow’s biologist and the next day’s social worker. The developmental period of 17-20 year olds is really about identifying skills, interests, and abilities. 

Internships and opportunities for experiential learning can provide that in a safe way beside coaching and mentoring. 

The center of this conversation about social mobility must be that we’re helping students understand what vocation is, what their calling is, what their pursuits are, how they’re going to contribute to a more just and humane world, and how they’re going to be successful contributors to their society.

Can Unlikely Students Really Succeed in College?

How do we identify how students are performing and then marshal the resources to meet their needs?

Here’s how Dominican does it:

College staff members check in on a new student in weeks three, five, eight, and 12. What are they doing well with? Where do they need help? The same goes for faculty. Who in your class needs something?

An alerts team uses that data to create innovative responses. Dominican employs a tool called NowPow, which it likens to an electronic social worker. NowPow allows the school to partner with community-based organizations to craft student-responsible individual care plans. Those plans may go beyond the students to their families — where many degree-seekers have intimate relationships and deep responsibilities.

“We solicit this information,” Barrington told us, “not to just be conveners of information, but to really focus our attention on particular student needs and to focus our interventions to be meaningful and targeted.” 

We can’t wait for a crisis, and we can’t wait for students to ask for help. We have to be proactive early in the semester. 

Next Steps for Designing Social Mobility Strategies

Start with your belief system. What do you hold true for the students that are coming to your campus? What do you believe of the students that are on your campus today? What you believe will drive all the innovation you need. 

Finally, look to your K through 12 partners to really learn about who our students are. They know them, they’ve been there, they’ve walked alongside them through this process. All across America, many organizations are willing and able to partner with higher education to help us best understand and steward the matriculation process successfully into our environments.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Barrington Price of Dominican University. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.