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The Pomona College Quantitative Pathways Project
Pomona College is committed to creating an educational environment that reflects equity and inclusive excellence. In recent years, an important part of that effort has been devoted to creating a more diverse student body, resulting in dramatic growth in the percentages of traditionally underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students. The percentage of students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups grew from 19 percent of the incoming class in 2007 to 24 percent in 2016; the 2016 entering class included 45 percent students of color overall (including all domestic underrepresented minorities and multiracial students). During this same time, the proportion of first-generation students increased from 11 percent to nearly 18 percent of the incoming class.
Far from being satisfied with this positive trend, we realized that the larger challenge was not just recruiting exceptional individuals to campus but creating a culture in which the transformative experiences that our institution offers are accessible to all students. In other words, we needed to examine the culture of the institution and promote change where it was needed.
Focusing on Student Achievement Gaps
The Pomona Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project team’s first steps involved identifying areas of inequity in the college and then formulating strategies to address them. Pomona College’s graduation rates rank among the highest in the nation; for the 2010 cohort, six-year rates were at or above 95 percent for all domestic student groups. Yet data on student performance and persistence identified achievement gaps for certain groups of students. Notably, most of the inequities identified were within quantitatively focused majors like the sciences. Data showed that many incoming first-year students who had indicated an interest in a quantitatively focused major and who struggled through the introductory courses eventually moved to a different major. A pilot program led by a joint effort from student and academic affairs, called the Pomona Science Scholars, featured a tailored cohort-only section of Introductory Biology. This began in 2013 with the goal of alleviating some of these inequities, and the preliminary evidence is that this program has been successful in enhancing student progression in biology and decreasing the achievement gaps.
Our campus action plan is focused on expanding what we have learned from the Pomona Science Scholars experience into other quantitative fields where student achievement gaps are also persistent: chemistry and economics. The first stage of the research project consisted of understanding differences in quantitative literacy. As a small liberal arts college, many of our courses have only a single section. But the introductory courses in economics and chemistry (Principles of Macroeconomics and General Chemistry) are very popular and have multiple sections every semester. Our choice of Principles of Macroeconomics and General Chemistry was also a strategic one, because more than 70 percent of all students take at least one of these courses, and performance gaps by race/ethnicity have been evident over time. By focusing on these two courses, we can gather data on a substantial portion of our first-year students and begin to formulate strategies for generating equitable outcomes within those quantitative-based majors.
The campus action plan involved the formulation of shared questions and evaluation rubrics that would allow us to examine final examination achievement for first-generation students, traditionally underrepresented students, and other students in introductory chemistry and economics courses. This project has led to focused, coordinated work on the persistence and success of first-generation, Black, and Latino/a students who are interested in majoring in STEM and other quantitative fields at Pomona. Besides documenting differences in quantitative literacy in introductory courses, the project addresses equity by assessing the capacity of academic cohorts and student support strategies. Preliminary data show better persistence by underrepresented minority students in STEM cohorts, and early innovations in introductory course design show strong promise in closing equity gaps. Additional data will allow us to implement an approach to directly assess quantitative reasoning, develop models for scaling up student support strategies within STEM, and experiment with cohort approaches in other areas of the curriculum.
Pomona is committed to equity-minded assessment that can carefully inform our next steps as we scale up these efforts (Bensimon and Malcom 2012). These assessments, while still in various stages of implementation, so far have yielded powerful insights about the design of small-section introductory courses and the integration of cocurricular support mechanisms. Through iterative stages of innovation and assessment, Pomona has begun to organize around several promising practices that include an emphasis on interactive lecture and group learning; weekly, mandatory cohort meetings that integrate high-touch advising around “doing college”; and direct engagement by faculty and academic advisors in managing potential stereotype risks and minimizing their impact on students as they navigate STEM at a highly selective institution like Pomona.
Promising Signs of Progress
During this work, we have seen promising signs of progress. We are encouraged by a dramatic reduction in performance gaps in a key introductory genetics course, the locus of the Pomona Science Scholars program and targeted pedagogical change in recent years. In addition, the proportion of students persisting through fourth semester STEM has improved by almost 20 percent for first-generation students since 2013, and persistence rates have gone up for Black and Latino/a students participating in STEM cohorts. So far, 81 percent of Black cohort students have persisted in STEM through four semesters, compared to 71 percent of Black students not in a cohort; the comparable figures for Latino/a students are 91 percent (in a cohort) and 71 percent (not in a cohort). These successes give us hope for implementing similar pedagogical changes in economics and chemistry. Moreover, in addition to the data from Pomona College’s participation in the Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project, we are seeing changes in the college’s culture. Individual faculty members in economics and chemistry became more knowledgeable about issues of equity, and they are committed to working to improve student success.
These trends, though promising, are still very preliminary, and much work lies ahead of us to understand and replicate them. In the meantime, we have gained valuable insights about mobilizing change on our campus, including the importance of faculty-led collaboration supported by equity-minded assessment and the need to attend to campus structures and routines that support this collaboration. Our participation in the Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence project dedicated time and space for faculty to convene and reflect on course data from an equity perspective and design common assessments to support their future work. Moving forward, our challenge will be to ensure that the preliminary gains we’ve seen so far can be implemented consistently across varying contexts (different courses and instructors, an evolving landscape for campus climate, etc.) and that mechanisms for faculty collaboration are carefully nurtured and sustained.
Bensimon, Estela Mara, and Lindsey E. Malcom, eds. 2012. Confronting Equity Issues on Campus: Implementing the Equity Scorecard in Theory and Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Travis Brown, Director, Quantitative Skills Center; Mary Coffey, Associate Dean of the College; Jennifer Rachford, Director, Office of Institutional Research; and Hector Sambolín, Jr., Associate Dean of Students for Academic Success and Assessment, all of Pomona College