Administrators at Coppin State University were hardly surprised when a report published last year showed that the public university in Baltimore had among the lowest graduation rates in the country, with just 19 percent of freshmen who entered in 2002 having earned a bachelor's degree by 2008. "We knew we had a persistence problem," says Reginald G. Ross, the vice president for enrollment management who had been brought to Coppin State in November 2008 in large part to help fix that problem.
But the national visibility in the American Enterprise Institute's "Diplomas and Dropouts" report  -- and the local news reports  that followed -- stung nonetheless, and gave Coppin State officials additional motivation to address the problem -- and quickly.
This week, Coppin unveiled a fundamental part of its response: a required six-week summer immersion program  for 200 of its nearly 600 incoming freshmen, with a focus on those who placement tests showed needed remedial work in at least one subject. In the summer program, which will be expanded next year to include all incoming freshmen, students will not only take a first shot at their remedial course work and college survival classes, but will be engaged from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in recreational, social and other activities.
Coppin's approach is far from unique; in fact, its officials acknowledge that they are playing catchup in instituting an idea that many of their peer institutions (including other Maryland historically black colleges, such as Morgan State University and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore) already use.
What's perhaps most noteworthy about Coppin's plan, though, is that it shows an institution acknowledging its shortcomings in a fundamental area of its operation and taking aggressive (and expensive) steps to improve the situation -- in contrast to the easy stereotype of a complacent higher education enterprise.
New Regime at Coppin
Ross and his boss at Coppin State, President Reginald S. Avery, appear to be anything but self-satisfied. Avery came to Coppin in 2008 and, as is common, promptly replaced most of the university's leadership team.
Ross knew he and his colleagues had their work cut out for them in trying to improve student persistence at Coppin. The university's students come disproportionately from West Baltimore's troubled public schools, and many of them enter both financially needy (a full two-thirds are eligible for federal Pell Grants) and academically underprepared (with a median combined score of about 800-900  on the SAT).
Institutional data  show that the first-to-second-year retention rate for students at Coppin had steadily fallen to 58 percent in 2007 from 71 percent in 2000.
"When I came on board, I started asking the question, why?" says Ross. But he soon realized, he said, that Coppin "didn't have a lot of time to dwell on the why, because we wanted to move fast to start addressing the problem. We wanted to know what we could put in place for the next cycle of students."
At a meeting with officials from Maryland's other historically black colleges last summer, Coppin administrators learned that the university was alone among them -- and alone in the 11-member University System of Maryland -- in not having any kind of large-scale summer program for students. "Immersion programs have become a 'best practice,' and we weren't doing it," Ross says.
Coppin officials envisioned a program for all first-year students, but given budget constraints, redirected enough money (about $550,000) to enroll about 200 incoming freshmen who place into a remedial course in the first ever Summer Academic Success Academy. (Assuming the money comes through, the program will be expanded to include all freshmen next summer.)
Under the program, which began this month, even students who will not live on campus as full-time students are spending six weeks in full-time immersion at Coppin. In addition to their remedial courses, the students are participating in a mix of study skills classes, social events, physical education and other experiences, to prepare them not only for the rigors of higher education but also "to keep them fully engaged in the learning process," says Ross.
"They need to understand that college requires hard work, so that when they come in [to start classes] at the end of August, they're not stunned by anything that happens to them. But we don't want it to be a boring, horrible experience for them, either."
Mark Schneider, the American Institutes for Research scholar who co-wrote (with Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute) the "Diplomas and Dropouts" report, says that Coppin "deserves kudos" for responding aggressively to the report's distressing numbers (and the underlying situation the data reflect). "They're clearly trying to rise to the challenge, and I give them credit for that."
Coppin's chosen approach of the summer academy is in line with the "current wisdom" of research on persistence, but the underdeveloped state of that research is such that it's hard to be confident that Coppin's strategy will work, Schneider says. "You're talking about a group of students -- with two courses of developmental ed -- whose chances of finishing [college] are really low," he says.
Ross understands that skepticism -- and recognizes that he and others at Coppin have a lot of work to do. "We're playing catchup to some extent," he says, of the range of measures that the university has put in place in addition to the summer program, including a new advising system. A forthcoming report will show that the year-to-year persistence rate for freshmen rose 4 percentage points in 2008-9 from the year before, and when that report is released this fall, "people might applaud, but I'll be the one standing back in very reserved fashion saying, 'Let's see what it is next year.' "