A Different Way to Diversify

College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, in Minnesota, use their own version of the cohort model to recruit and retain underrepresented students.
February 11, 2008

How does it happen that a large, inner-city public high school in Los Angeles becomes a feeder to a liberal arts college in Minnesota? Like many such relationships, it starts with a few students and spreads through word of mouth.

In fall 2005, the College of Saint Benedict and its partner, Saint John's University, enrolled the first class of its Intercultural Leadership, Education and Development (or I-LEAD) program, which targets geographically and socioeconomically underrepresented students. Among that group were two students -- a male and a female -- who were recruited to come from L.A.’s Bell High School.

At the 4,700-student high school, 98 percent of students are Hispanic, 92 percent qualify for the federal lunch program and the college-going rate hovers around 33 percent, according to Antonio Reveles, director of college counseling at Bell.

Those first two admitted students from Bell talked to their friends, who passed the word on to their friends the next year about applying. The I-LEAD program, now in its third year, has 47 students, six of whom are from Bell. Another five from the high school are enrolled either at Saint John's, an all-male institution, or its sister college, Saint Benedict, but aren’t in the program.

"We've created a geographical bridge between our schools,” Reveles said. “Parents are finding out what’s happening on this campus. Siblings are looking into it. It’s opened the doors for our kids.”

That’s just the intention of I-LEAD, said MaryAnn Baenninger, president of Saint Benedict. For years, Saint Benedict and Saint John’s, which share faculty and an academic program, have struggled to recruit minority students. Put together, the colleges are about 90 percent white. Six percent of students at Saint Benedict and 4.3 percent at Saint John’s are Americans from racial minority groups (the institutions attract a high number of international students).

That’s a total of 36 black students, 98 Asians, 58 Hispanics and 10 Native Americans out of an overall student body of roughly 4,000. The diversity figures have risen slightly at Saint Benedict but are slower to grow at Saint John’s. That’s partly due to the fact that there’s a two-to-one ratio of female to male students in I-LEAD.

Plenty of colleges have recognized the benefits of the cohort model of recruiting and retaining minority students, in which students are admitted with a group of high school peers in order to ensure a built-in support network. I-LEAD takes a different tack.

Those in the program apply through the regular admissions process. Once admitted, they are either recruited by the college to fill out the separate I-LEAD application or find out about the process on their own.

“These students have every reason to be here but maybe don’t look because of the location and the cost,” said Jody Terhaar, dean of students at the college and a member of the I-LEAD steering team. The total cost of attendance at Saint Benedict and Saint John’s, including tuition, fees, and room and board, is roughly $33,500.

Students in the fellowship program receive $7,500 annually – that figure is expected to rise to $9,000 for all participants starting next year. Most of the students are from inner-city schools. Hispanic, Asian and black students predominate -- three students in the program identify as white. Admissions decisions are based largely on financial need and family background: All of the fellows are the first in their families to attend college.

Applicants to the program are asked this question: " How has your ethnic background and/or your involvement with cultural activities in your school and community helped you to better appreciate diversity? How do you intend to use your knowledge and skills to further the CSB /SJU goal of deepening intercultural understanding?"

The college, Terhaar said, wanted more than just a scholarship program. “We had a moral and ethical obligation to do more than that," she said. "If we were to invite students to come to campus, we wanted to make sure a system was in place to help them succeed."

Twice a month, I-LEAD students have official meetings where they eat together, hear lectures on academic topics and listen to presentations from college officials, such as a recent session on what students might expect to get from studying abroad.

Students end up spending much of their time -- particularly early in the program -- with their peers. They are paired up for a first-year seminar on reading, writing and thinking, and are assigned to professors who volunteer to work with I-LEAD students.

"It’s helpful to have a support group that we can always go back to,” said Maria Peña, a junior from Brooklyn Center, Minn., who is part of the first I-LEAD cohort. “We’re always eating together; we know each other well and feel like we’re a family."

But the idea isn’t full immersion. “We don’t want to completely segregate them,” Terhaar said. “They need to have their own lives.”

MaryAnn Baenninger


Baenninger said the college's version of the cohort model is predicated on getting students to feel comfortable first within their peer group, and then getting them interacting with the rest of campus. The students aren’t paired as roommates. They are encouraged to join student government and other groups on campus. Most do, the president said.

Reveles, the Bell counseling director, said the program -- and the college in general -- is a good fit for his students, in part because of the early attention they receive.

"Our kids who go, they aren't senior class presidents or the very top scholars, but they are kids who have potential, and they really find their niche," Reveles said.

That first semester is often a challenge, Reveles said, largely because of the distance factor for Hispanic students who often feel pressure to stay near home for college. In one case, it took a former Bell High student's parents who wanted their daughter to come home to visit the Minnesota campus before they allowed her to stay.

Since the program began, the retention rate is 92 percent. That’s higher than the rate for the general student body, according to the college.

Baenninger said she would like to see more of a gender balance in the program, but that the current numbers reflect the lopsided number of female applicants. Trying to artificially balance the program, she said, could create other problems, such as admitting male students who are less qualified than the other applicants. “That doesn’t help the program in the end."

It wasn’t the intention to develop pipelines at certain schools, the president added, but it has happened in a de facto way at Bell and other high schools. And Baenninger said she’s fine with that trend.

“That’s going to help diversify the school,” she said. “When individual students from other schools who aren’t in the program come and visit, they’re more likely to see students like them.”


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