Thursday, June 20, 2019
In testimony Wednesday before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, Tomikia LeGrande, Ed.D., vice provost for strategic enrollment management at Virginia Commonwealth University, detailed VCU’s sharply rising graduation rates and highlighted the university’s innovative approaches to ensuring its students excel in college and beyond.
LeGrande appeared before the committee during a hearing on “Innovation to Improve Equity: Exploring High-Quality Pathways to a College Degree.” U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, chair of the committee, said VCU was among the higher education institutions that are “pioneering strategies that empower students to access and complete college programs that fit their needs.” LeGrande’s fellow panelists were Judith Marwick, Ed.D., provost of Harper College; Charla Long, executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network; and Sameer Gadkaree, senior program officer for the Joyce Foundation.
In LeGrande’s opening remarks, she told the committee that 43 percent of VCU’s students are from minority populations, 33 percent are first-generation college students, and 30 percent are eligible for Pell Grants. LeGrande said VCU is focused on ensuring that every student has the same opportunity to thrive.
“All of our students have great potential and capability, but they have not all had equal access to power or information with respect to how to succeed in college,” LeGrande said. “This means that some students get lost in the academic enterprise and must figure it out for themselves. So at VCU, we’ve transformed our approaches to meet the needs of our diverse student population.”
LeGrande noted that VCU’s Latinx, African American and Pell-eligible students graduate at nearly the same rate as their classmates who have more advantages.
“We believe we will completely eliminate this gap by the time our current incoming class of freshmen graduates — something few universities have done,” LeGrande said. “This follows a larger trend at VCU. For all of our students, both four- and six-year graduation rates have increased by more than 14 percentage points since 2012 and are now higher than the national average. More importantly, 17 percent of our students move up two or more income quintiles after they graduate. A student born into the bottom quintile of family incomes has a 27 percent chance of reaching the very top quintile after graduating from VCU.”
LeGrande said VCU’s emphasis on boosting student success has focused on three primary categories: guidance and support, student-faculty engagement, and college access and affordability. In particular, she pointed to VCU’s efforts in areas such as an intrusive advising model that uses technology and predictive analytics to provide crucial interventions for students; the Major Maps program, which provides planning tools that help students (current and prospective), advisers, faculty and family members strategically map out a student’s college experience depending on their program of study; modernized first-year courses; the REAL initiative, which ensures students have an experiential learning experience; community college partnerships; and affordability initiatives, such as an investment of more than $35 million over the past eight years to build institutional aid.
“It’s critical that colleges and universities move beyond the simple academic checklists many of us remember from our days as students and rethink our approaches, putting the needs of our students first,” LeGrande said.
Following their prepared testimony, LeGrande and her fellow panelists answered questions from the committee on issues such as dual-enrollment classes, competency-based education, the misalignment of high school graduation requirements and college entrance requirements, first-generation students, career preparation, food insecurity, affordable housing, and financial advising.
Rep. Ben Cline, R-Virginia, said he applauded VCU’s improvement in graduation rates, particularly noting the university’s success closing the gap between VCU’s Latinx, African American and Pell-eligible students and those of their peers. He asked about VCU’s best practices for addressing that particular issue.
LeGrande attributed the improvements to a range of factors. Among them, she said, was a focus on the transitions that students encounter during their academic careers and VCU’s work integrating applied learning experiences into the curriculum to help students tie their education to real-world applications.
“Oftentimes when we think about coming to college we think about students transitioning one time — from high school to college — but students transition year after year,” LeGrande said. “They’re constantly assessing what’s the purpose of this education and why am I here. It’s important that we have experiences along the way that help students not to just develop competencies but to be able to articulate what is this college degree teaching me and what product do I have that allows me to showcase those skills. So these applied learning experiences really have contributed to our higher graduation rates because students are now connected and invested in their education.”
Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, expressed interest in VCU’s use of intrusive advising and a data-based approach to identify students who need additional support.
LeGrande said VCU’s attention to data ensures it is keeping tabs on its programs and identifying where improvements can be made.
“If data is the foundation of your work, what you will find is that you are continually assessing yourself as an institution — identifying what’s working, what’s moving the needle, and what isn’t moving the needle,” LeGrande said. “Then it’s a matter of being courageous enough as an organization to stop doing things that way if it’s not working for your students.”
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, asked LeGrande about the challenges of training students for jobs that have not yet been created and helping to develop a diversified workforce of flexible, creative thinkers.
“We are currently working at VCU on our general education redesign to make sure we are fully engaging students around those concepts of critical thinking and written and oral communication — the transferable skills that will go with you regardless of what your career path is,” LeGrande said. “We want to make sure we’re preparing students to be lifelong learners with functional skills to get that first job and then to be able to move on to that next suite of jobs. That’s where the REAL experiences are important. Because we serve such a large population of students who are first-gen and low-income, they don’t come to us with the social capital to network and to understand all of the pieces that help you land that first job, and that next job, and so it is very important that in addition to the hands-on technical skills they learn those soft skills.”
To view the complete hearing, visit a recording of the committee's livestream of the event.