Chancellor Calls White House Summit a '10' for Students and University of Arkansas
Commitment to 'at risk' students part of U of A heritageFriday, January 31, 2014
Chancellor Gearhart, attending White House higher education summit with other university and college presidents and chancellors. (Photo by Sarah Wire, courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.)
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The University of Arkansas was one of 80 colleges and universities invited to take part in a White House summit aimed at increasing access to higher education for “at-risk” students — those lacking financial or other resources and “at risk” of not getting into college and of not succeeding if they do attend. The event took place Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 15 and 16, in Washington, D.C.
Chancellor G. David Gearhart represented the university at the summit. The U of A earned its invitation with a demonstrated record of working with low income and underrepresented students and by committing to develop at least three additional programs to improve the access and success rates for these students.
“It is a major commitment,” Gearhart admitted. “But the University of Arkansas was founded as an institution for the sons and daughters of the working class. We are a land-grant university. We are here to serve the state. So it’s a commitment we take very seriously.
“People who come from at-risk families are just as smart, just as talented as anyone else, and should have the same opportunities,” he continued. “A flagship, land-grant university should take this responsibility. It’s a big obligation but it’s one that is part of our heritage.”
Gearhart said the summit was excellent. When asked to rate it on a scale of one to 10, he didn’t hesitate.
“I’d give it a 10,” he said, and went on to explain that the event was very worthwhile on several levels.
“It wasn’t all just talk,” he said. “I think the people who took part in this summit really have a commitment and want to make these programs work. I think the summit will ultimately have a great impact on the nation.
“I felt very good that our university was one of the 80 invited to attend, and I thought that was very prestigious for the university, Gearhart added. “It profiled the University of Arkansas in a special way.”
The event began Wednesday evening, with a private, “off the record” discussion between the higher education leaders and members of the Department of Education and the National Economic Policy Council. Gearhart said it was an opportunity to share ideas and talk about the programs that worked.
The following morning the educators were joined by about 60 business, state government, foundation and non-profit leaders for a series of workshop meetings to continue a discussion of the issues and solutions. Late in the morning they heard from their official hosts: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
“It was very interesting,” said Gearhart. “Mrs. Obama spoke first and was very inspiring, as was the president. They both came across as very committed to this goal. And I got the same feeling from everyone who attended this summit. We were all on the same page regarding increased access for at-risk students.”
The University of Arkansas currently has four programs specifically aimed at preparing these students for college. The ACT Academy brings high school students to campus for five days during the summer to help prepare them for the ACT exam and the college admissions process.
The Academic Enrichment Program provides low income and underrepresented students with academic support such as tutoring, workshops, early intervention advising, peer and faculty mentoring and other learning opportunities.
A two-week summer program called iBridge offers incoming freshmen an intensive orientation to college-level literacy, mathematics, science and technology courses; a similar program for engineering students, the Engineering Career Awareness Program, provides gap funding support and uses rigorous academic retention strategies for each year’s group of incoming freshmen.
Tutoring, advising, mentoring and orientation are available to all U of A students. However, these programs are targeted, and go further Gearhart said, because the students’ needs are different and more intense.
“Many at-risk students want to go to college but don’t really know how to go through the process of taking the ACT or filling out financial aid forms, or even applying to a school,” he explained. “In Arkansas some of these students have never been out of their county – some not even out of their town – and coming to the University of Arkansas is a big, big deal to them. We need to be open to helping these students, to make sure they have the same opportunities as everyone else.”
The chancellor praises Charles Robinson, vice chancellor for diversity and community, for creating the current programs. Robinson says the credit belongs to the faculty and staff of the seven units under his division, who these programs work, as well as others programs that actively reach out to students in elementary, middle school and high school, encouraging them to prepare for a college education. Robinson and his staff have also been instrumental in developing the new programs that Gearhart committed to during the White House summit.
These include an expanded Summer Bridge program on campus that would involve students taking for-credit courses as a transition to the college experience; a University Perspectives course targeted to the needs of at-risk students, with intensive advising, career coaching, enhanced tutoring support, as well as discussions of financial aid literacy and cultural sensitivity; and a new pilot program, Commitment to College Completion. This program is being funded with a $2.1 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation and will provide financial resources along with academic enrichment and peer and faculty mentoring.
“Ultimately, we want to think about developing a ‘cradle to the grave’ relationship with all our students,” Gearhart said. “Our goal is to reach out to them early in their lives, help guide them to the resources they need to prepare for college, give them the support they need to do the hard work it takes to succeed in college and graduate; we also intend to offer career counseling to help them find jobs or move on to graduate school, then stay in contact with them, as alumni, throughout their lives.
“We want every Arkansan to have access to the American opportunity system, and that begins with access to higher education.”
Steve Voorhies, manager of media relations