Peer Review

Promising Pathways: A Gateway to Equity-Mindedness

Dominican University is a premier Catholic institution that serves students from the Midwest and around the world. Founded in 1901 as St. Clara College, Dominican University prepares students to pursue truth, give compassionate service, and participate in the creation of a just and humane world. Sponsored by the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, the university embraces its identity as a gateway institution of higher learning that offers a rigorous liberal arts education to women and underserved students, including first-generation, Hispanic, African American, immigrant, and international students.

In July 2015, an organizing team drafted a letter on why Dominican University should become a partner in the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)’s Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: Campus-Based Strategies for Student Success project. The letter’s argument was that Dominican has the passion, the commitment, and the need to innovate toward more equitable models of student success. This article explains what Dominican has done since being selected as a project participant and how we plan to continue our work beyond the three-year project.

A Project to Improve the First-Year Experience

Our five-person equity team identified closing equity gaps for African American and first generation college students as a pressing concern. To understand the problem, we developed a framework for our own equity analysis. We created a data set for the 2008 and 2013 student cohorts and benchmarked those two cohorts across thirty variables. Next, we conducted a transcript analysis of the African American students in both cohorts. Our team shared our analysis and ideas for a project with key stakeholders and constituents. With the support of six instructors, we developed a first-year curricular intervention to improve year-to-year African American and first generation student retention. The equity team / stakeholder action plan became known as Promising Pathways.

First Semester of Promising Pathways: Piloting “First Year Together”
In First Year Together, a group of freshman students, known as the Promising Pathways Intervention (PPI) students, and their faculty advisors worked together for the full academic year to ensure a strong start and a good plan for four years at Dominican. This strategy included enrolling selected students in an intensive freshman seminar where they attended group advising sessions and psychosocial in-class presentations and activities. As part of First Year Together, the equity team and several faculty advisors developed a guided pathways tool to help students complete their individual plans for making college a transformational experience and for preparing for life after Dominican. A faculty development summer academy for equity-minded data analysis and direct assessment of student learning will end the pilot phase of the project.

Second Semester of Promising Pathways: Promoting Student Success
This past semester, an expanded equity team convened to consider next steps for First Year Together. The team’s efforts focused on connecting students to success opportunities while facilitating a smooth transition to their majors. To achieve these objectives, the equity team held a seminar to share information and outcomes data about PPI with advisors within the majors.

For the PPI cohort, the equity team is promoting the programs and activities that are available to all students to foster student success. For PPI students, however, participation in these programs will be monitored through an online student portal called Engage DU, and prizes for participation will be awarded at a PPI culminating activity. Data monitoring of cohort retention rates, graduation rates, and PPI outcomes will continue. To prepare for next fall, the equity team is working with the Borra Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence (BCTLE) to design summer faculty meetings to engage new faculty in PPI and to plan for a summer faculty workshop in 2018. The meetings will engage interested first-year seminar faculty with Promising Pathways while the 2018 workshop will use a modified AAC&U VALUE rubric to assess the common assignment used in the First Year Together seminar.

The summer workshop will focus on closing equity gaps through the direct assessment of student learning. This approach supports the BCTLE’s emphasis on intercultural competence, inclusive teaching, and integrative learning as strategies to improve learning outcomes for all students.

Data Matters

Initially, the equity team conducted a benchmark analysis of first-year retention rates by race for the 2008 and 2013 cohorts. The team noted significantly lower retention rates in the 2008 cohort and volatility in retention for African American and Hispanic students compared to white students in the 2013 cohort (see table 1).

Table 1. First-Year Retention Rates
Cohort Year African American Hispanic White Asian* Total Fall to Fall Student Retention
2008 54% 83% 84% 59% 81.0%
2013 82% 74% 83% 85% 80.7%

A transcript analysis of both cohorts revealed key reasons why African American graduation rates were lower than those of other ethnic groups. For example, the graduation rate for the 2008 cohort was 62.7 percent overall but only 32.4 percent for African Americans. The data showed that few African American students graduated in four years. Some reasons for the longer time to degree were:

  • African American students had an imbalance in credits attempted versus credits earned. These students also accumulated credits that did not count toward a degree. Additionally, African American students experienced course failures, withdrawals, and lost credits due to transfers.
  • To maintain financial aid eligibility, some students earned more than the credits required to graduate but did not meet all their program requirements.

Our analysis also helped the team realize the importance of a reliable, centralized tracking system to monitor whether all students have access to high-impact practices and transformative learning opportunities.

Student Characteristics for the PPI Group
For data analysis purposes, the students who participated in the intervention became the “PPI group.” The randomly selected comparison group became the Promising Pathways Comparison or “PPC group.”

  • The PPI group included 103 students selected on a modified random basis. The PPI group was 21 percent of the freshman class (495 students).
  • African American enrollment in the PPI group was 17.5 percent compared to 8.7 percent in the PPC group. African American enrollment was 8.8 percent of the total freshman class.
  • First-generation students made up 62.1 percent of the PPI group compared to 56.5 percent of the PPC group.
  • The average composite ACT score for the PPI group was 20 compared to the composite score of 22 for the PPC group.

Scaling Up the Project

Plans to scale up the project for next year are being developed. So far, four objectives for the next academic year include: (1) identifying a project coordinator, (2) recruiting a second group of first-year seminar instructors and advisors, and (3) creating an electronic version of the guided pathways tool and a system to facilitate student academic planning and monitor participation in high-impact practices.

Overall, Promising Pathways has allowed for the development of an equity leadership team, a data analysis framework, and a faculty development program, as well as tools for incorporating holistic advising and guided pathways development into the freshman seminar. We look forward to continuing our work to close equity gaps at Dominican University.


Sheila Radford-Hill, Chief Diversity Officer; Anne Deeter, Director of Continuous Improvement, Office of Institutional Effectiveness; Angela Frazier, Assistant Dean, Rosary College of Arts and Sciences; Gema Ortega, Director of Transitions Program and Lecturer, English Department; Kathleen O’Connor, Assistant Professor, Psychology; Norah Collins, Associate Dean of Students; Paul Simpson, Executive Director, Academic Enrichment Center; and Tina Taylor-Ritzler, Associate Professor, Psychology, all of Dominican University

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