THE RISING SCHOLAR EXPERIENCE: UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS
From Recruitment to Enrollment
UC Davis has become an HSI at the same time that student admission has become more competitive. To gain HSI status, UC Davis did not change its admission standards but continues to selectively choose among the best student applicants. 2 Indeed, due to the continued increase to the numbers of students applying to the UC campuses and insufficient funding to sustain enrollment growth admission practices, UC campuses have become significantly more competitive in recent years.
Since 2008, the number of Chicanx/Latinx first year and transfer students who apply to UC Davis has nearly tripled (7,377 in 2008; 19,326 in 2017) and enrollment numbers have more than doubled (988 in 2008; 2,038 in 2017). Growth in all applications went from 46,625 in 2008 to 70,715 in 2017, and the proportion of those applicants who enrolled went from 14.3% in 2008 to 10.4% in 2017.
In Fall 2018, UC Davis enrolled about 2,600 California resident community college transfer students. This represents 15% of the UC system’s transfer student enrollment. Of the transfer students who enrolled, 53% were first-generation and 22% were Chicanx/Latinx. Of those who transferred in 2013, almost 53% graduated in two years and about 89% graduated in five years or more. In the same time frame, about 50% of Chicanx/Latinx transfer students graduated in two years and about 87% graduated in five years or more (University of California, 2018b).
Even though the number of admits and matriculated students has increased at a much slower pace than white students, there has been an increase in the proportion of Chicanx/Latinx student applicants and matriculants. Since the admission criteria did not change during this period, this suggests that UC Davis was more successful in attracting applications and securing enrollment (see Figures 10-11), making UC Davis is a destination of choice for many Chicanx/Latinx students. However, the average representation of Chicanx/Latinx students (input percentage) lags well behind their representation among the K-12 population (over 50%) and the general population of California (39%).
The dramatic increase in applications and matriculation of Chicanx/Latinx students did not occur accidentally. Rather, it was the result of an intentional strategy by UC Davis admission and recruitment staff to attract top students, draw from additional regions of California, and strengthen the appeal of UC Davis among underrepresented student populations. For example, in targeted recruitment areas such as Imperial County, Ventura County, and Salinas (See Figures 12-13), the number of applications to UC Davis by Chicanx/Latinx prospective students has doubled, and in some regions even tripled.
The average high school GPA for all students admitted to UC Davis has increased over time, but differences between racial and ethnic groups persist, even when disaggregated by income (see figures 14-16). The proportion of underrepresented minorities and low-income students has also increased in tandem with increased high school GPA. Average entrance test scores also show differences between racial and ethnic groups and between low income and not-low income students; however, entrance test scores do not predict student success as well as high school GPA, "High school grades are a far better predictor of both four-year and six-year graduation rates than are SAT/ACT test scores… [our] analysis reinforces the point that high school grades measure a student’s ability to ‘get it done’ in a more powerful way than do SAT scores – a conclusion that holds, regardless of the high school attended." (Bowen, W. G., Chingos, M. M., & McPherson, M. S., 2011).
Factors like high school GPA and SAT scores correlate with school of origination and income level. Red-lining, unfair housing practices, regional disinvestment, and white flight are contributors to school segregation across the state of California. Underinvestment in many schools, particularly those that serve Chicanx/Latinx students is simply the reality. Potential is not the same as preparation. Every student who is admitted to UC Davis has the potential to succeed here, yet assumptions that students arrive at college with a knowledge of what a cell is, the ability to solve quadratic equations, the elements of a research report or the relationship between a major and career choices are to leave behind many students at critical moments in their development as scholars. As a land grant institution, UC Davis needs to comprehend its responsibility to meet students where they are–building on competencies while filling in gaps and encouraging engagement.
Building on such competencies also suggests an opportunity for enrollment management to push further in holistic admissions to identity those factors that correlate better with student success. Predictive analytics, already employed at UC Davis, can show us how weighting various factors in the admissions process can both improve diversity and graduation outcomes. However, these predictions need to coordinate with those who are transforming learning so that they may better support students who would have previously been overlooked—not because they lack the potential to succeed but because the metrics we use to evaluate that success underestimates their potential in a more supportive UC Davis environment.
With over 60% of Chicanx/Latinx high school students not meeting the requirements of University of California admissions, we see an opportunity to leverage our own distinguished School of Education to better prepare the next generation of teachers, by creating increased opportunities, better incentives, and more efficient pathways for Chicanx/Latinx students (especially Latino men, who are underrepresented in K-12 classrooms) to achieve teaching credentials. UC Davis has an opportunity to credential high-quality bilingual instructors with connections to Chicanx/Latinx communities and to leverage cohorts of K-12 teacher role models who have been trained by and are connected to the institution and who understand the kind of rigorous preparation their students will need to aspire to a University of California education. Unique to California is the highest proportion of English learners in the United States which are predominantly taught by early-career teachers that “require specialized knowledge, dispositions, and practices to effectively teach this population of students.” In addition, low-income and minority students tend to disproportionately attend schools with the highest numbers of novice teachers. These inequities in teacher preparation and experience affect the number of students who graduate college-ready (Policy Analysis for California Education, 2018a). Studies show positive benefits for elementary and middle school students who had gender- and racial/ethnic-matches with teachers (Ibid.).
Working closely with the community colleges to increase the proportion of Chicanx/Latinx transfer students presents another clear opportunity for UC Davis. In 2017, over 70% of Chicanx/Latinx students in California who attended college (from a total of 1.3 million) started their careers as community college students (Campaign for College Opportunity, 2018a). While few transfer into a four-year institution (only 21,389 in Fall 2016), most Chicanx/Latinx students transfer to a CSU (67% in Fall 2016), with only 14% transferring into a UC in Fall 2016 (Campaign for College Opportunity, 2018, November). UC Davis data show only 32% of Chicanx/Latinx are transfer students, which is lower than the overall UC Davis transfer rate by 4 points. To begin addressing this disparity, the University of California recently signed a memorandum with the California Community Colleges to guarantee admission for students who complete one of the UC pathways and achieve the requisite GPA (University of California, Office of the President, 2018).
A broader concern about the Chicanx/Latinx transfer pipeline pertains to California Community Colleges poor or significant delays in the rates of completion toward a transfer path for Chicanx/Latinx students. According to 2018 The Campaign for College Opportunity’s report on the state of higher education for Latinx in California, “only two percent of Latinx students transferred from a community college within two years (the lowest rate among all racial/ethnic groups), and only 31 percent transferred within six years, which is significantly lower than white students’ rates” (p. 15). In fact, due to these enormous leaks or delays, The Campaign for College Opportunity concluded that it costs students more to start their career at a community college and transfer than it is to enroll directly at 4-year institution (Campaign for College Opportunity, 2017, September). This raises two important opportunities for UC Davis. The first relates to how we may contribute and advocate for increasing our capacity to enroll more Chicanx/Latinx students who are applying directly to UC Davis from high school. The second relates to our obligation as a public R1 institution to partner with community colleges to conduct research and engage in joint programs to ensure the successful and timely transfer of students into 4-year institutions.
The enrollment of Chicanx/Latinx students at UC Davis mirrors nationwide trends in increased access to postsecondary education in the United States. According to the Education Trust, nearly half of all Chicanx/Latinx undergraduates nationwide are the first in their family to pursue any form of higher education (Nichols, A., 2017). Among Chicanx/Latinx students enrolled at UC Davis in fall of 2017 as first-time degree seekers higher proportions of students identified as low-income, first-generation and female compared to the general student population.
Academic Performance Versus Student Experience
When measured against traditional metrics of academic success (e.g., retention, time to graduation, graduation rates) Chicanx/Latinx students fare worse than white or Asian students at UC Davis. This is not surprising given that research shows that factors such as URM status, ESL, first-generation, and low-income tend to be correlated with lower academic performance and persistence to graduation (Engle, J. & Tinto, V., 2008). The Taskforce considers it important to be transparent about the data in this report to ensure we are not perceived as sweeping important trends and challenges under the rug. We want to encourage reflection and discussion about the factors that may be contributing to these disparate results.
The Taskforce recognizes the concerns associated with language that frames URM academic performance in terms of achievement gaps. These concerns relate to the narrow ways in which we measure achievement in higher education (i.e., content-based learning vs. human development or skills acquisition) as well as the ways in which assessments of these metrics are often flawed and biased (e.g., racial biases of standardized tests or the effects of grade curbs on URM students). The Taskforce does not ignore these factors and takes up some of them in the next sections of the report and in the recommendations. However, we are mindful that the traditional metrics of success that UC Davis uses (GPA, graduation rates, time to graduation) are the same metrics used nationwide in higher education and will remain important metrics around the assessment of equity and student performance for years to come.
Research has shown that these factors (i.e., first generation and low income) lower students’ chances of persisting to graduation. Previous research has also shown, however, that even after taking their demographic backgrounds, enrollment characteristics, and academic preparation into consideration, low-income and first-generation students are still at greater risk of failure in postsecondary education. This suggests that the problem is as much the result of the experiences these students have during college as it is attributable to the experiences they have before they enroll. –Engle and Tinto (2008), p. 3.
A 2017 UC Davis Student Retention Advisory Committee (SRAC) report (University of California, 2017b) also suggests the institution cannot continue to cite academic preparation as the sole reason for gaps between demographic groups. Despite improvements in graduation rates for most students, for minoritized groups, achievement gaps remain “stubbornly persistent,” and Hispanic students are “almost twenty points less likely than white students to graduate in four years (University of California, 2017b, p. 6).1
Transfer student experience can also vary by factors such as demographic characteristics such as race, gender, socioeconomic status; region of California (how far are they from home); age (are they 20 or 21 years old) or re-entry students (25+ years); parent status and family obligations; veterans status or formerly incarcerated. These factors can impede a student’s ability to form support networks with fellow students or relationships with faculty and staff. Transfer students need to be prepared not just academically but to quickly transition and take advantage of UC Davis’ breadth of academics, study abroad program, research opportunities, internships, career exploration, building fun and positive memories, and establishing meaningful relationships with peers and mentors. Key to navigating UC Davis is the quality of their community college experience. Some community colleges are stronger at preparing students academically, transitioning them into a UC major via Transfer Admissions Guarantee (TAG); or, providing them with advising and counseling services that prepare a student for the transition.
The challenges for Rising Scholars starts early in their college experience. In so-called “gateway” courses those courses that students must complete successfully in order to advance toward other requirements of their major—Chicanx/Latinx students have a very different experience than their non-Chicanx/Latinx peers, which cannot be completely explained by factors like incoming grade point average or SAT scores. This gap, often called the achievement or preparation gap, may be seen as a failure of equitable educational opportunities in K-12, but it is also reliant on a series of mistaken assumptions that higher education makes about its responsibility to meet students where they are and create a level playing field for all students to achieve.
Achievement gaps reproduce themselves when we examine the proportion of undergraduate students who take workload, also known as remedial or developmental, courses by race/ethnicity. In 2017-18, almost 44% of Chicanx/Latinx students, compared to 15% of white students (see Figure 19), started their UC Davis experience in a remedial, non-credit-bearing course. By the end of their third year, this translates, for some students, into being more than 16 units behind non-first generation, non-low income, and non-URM peers (the next largest and struggling students are first generation, low income
students that are primarily white or Asian). Remedial, non-credit-bearing courses hurt students in other waysnot just in failing to prepare them for gateway courses. Remedial, non-credit-bearing courses have opportunity costs, delaying students in their path toward graduation. They also separate students from their starting cohorts in a way that erodes a sense of belonging and adds cost for courses, books, and materials.
Some of the issues with workload courses go back to placement exams that are problematic in placing students accurately at UC Davis and beyond. Assembly Bill 705, signed by the Governor in 2017, “requires that a community college district or college maximize the probability that a student will enter and complete transfer-level coursework in English and math within a one year timeframe.” Rather than rely on flawed exams to determine which English and math courses a student should enroll in, community colleges will look at high school coursework, high school grades, and high school grade point average (California Community Colleges, 2018). As a result of pressure and regulation from the legislature, both community colleges and CSUs are also required to phase out all remedial courses within the next few years. They are piloting a number of alternatives to the remediation model for its population of students. Given the legislative climate, UC Davis would do well to proactively assess its own alternatives to both placement exams specifically and workload courses more generally. In the case of support for writing skills, we learned that writing centers with high touch, customized approaches have been shown to be effective in meeting the needs of students with perceived deficiencies in meeting English placement requirements that are worth further exploration.
In almost every conversation, we heard the need to provide resources for transitional programs, like the Special Transition Enrichment Program (STEP), to support more students. We also heard the need for longer and for-credit bridge programs that included a model for transfer students. Some suggested that more than ten times as many students would benefit from being able to participate in some kind of summer bridge program.
Another key recommendation in the SRAC report is around mandatory advising and case management for incoming freshmen and transfer students. The report suggests that UC Davis establish a “holistic case management system” that utilizes technology to better coordinate the decentralized counseling services students currently have to navigate between academic and administrative units. As a result of gaps in technology the specialized skill-sets of counselors go underutilized as the bulk of their time goes to dispensing information, as opposed to building relationships with students. The lack of technology also precludes advisors from being proactive and providing holistic services in a way that does not position struggling students as failures. This subcommittee has also established a Social Justice advising committee that is working to standardize the recruitment and interview process to ensure that the skills of incoming advising staff match the needs of the rapid enrollment growth of first-generation, low-income, and historically underrepresented students.
Students that come to UC Davis with less preparation are two to three times more likely to leave within the first two years. These same students experience the greatest gaps in GPA and successful course completion in large introductory courses – up to a full grade lower and four to five times the no-pass percentage compared with more privileged students. These gaps are largest in the introductory STEM courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, math, physics and statistics that are so critical to future success in the vast majority of our degree pathways. Departments such as math and chemistry, have made or are in the process of implementing changes that should have positive effects on the success of Rising Scholars, but the Task Force believes more needs to be done.2
Holistic Support Services
The student success centers, including the Center for Chicanx and Latinx Academic Student Success (CCLASS or El Centro) and the AB 540 and Undocumented Student Center, provide much needed holistic support for students. They offer spaces for students to study, meet and seek resources. They provide community, host cultural events and offer opportunities for identity development and leadership. Students and staff together serve as advocates for social justice issues and for improved campus climate, often mediating or advising on issues of racial and cultural conflict.
The HSI Task Force does not want to take for granted the contribution of Chicana/o Studies and our other ethnic studies departments in providing these same supports for students. Faculty and staff in these departments do much of the retention and equity work for UC Davis. Students from across majors/minors come to the classes; study in student offices in the department; and receive mentorship from peer advisors, staff and faculty. In the Chicana/o Studies department, staff offer a makeshift pantry and kitchen and provide free photocopying for students in need of these basic resources. Students wait up to three weeks for an advising appointment with the current staff member. The increasing numbers of faculty doing the work of supporting these students also expressed the need for space to share best practices and teaching pedagogies and to establish their own networks of support (Chicano/a Studies department faculty, email to Taskforce, March 11, 2019).
The recommendations in this report set out many incentives to prompt faculty in other departments to provide holistic support as well, but the likelihood is that the responsibility will still fall disproportionately on ethnic studies to support historically underrepresented minority students. Many students feel very supported and valued in these departments and find in these spaces the sense of belonging they crave. It is important that in the rush to incentivize one group to follow the behavior of another, the campus also reward the best practices of the group we are hoping to emulate. We recognize the challenges. Space is at a premium. Resources are scarce. Students in other majors also need support. Yet robust collaborations, pilot projects, and partnerships between these groups and structures like ethnic studies departments, El Centro, the AB 540 and Undocumented Student Center, living-learning communities, and others can lay the foundation for UC Davis becoming an HSI where our students thrive.
Representation Across Majors
A different way of assessing academic gaps at UC Davis, particularly given our emphasis on STEM education and the overall under-representation of Chicanx/Latinx students generally in STEM fields, pertains to the representation—from enrollment to graduation—of Chicanx/ Latinx students in all STEM majors. The data available in Taskforce documents demonstrate that in 2017-2018, UC Davis had representational gaps of Chicanx/Latinx students enrolled in STEM fields of 52%, which is 5% lower than white/Caucasian students and 8% lower than Asian/ Pacific Island students.
Moreover, Chicanx/Latinx students are disproportionately underrepresented in many STEM majors. For example, in majors of more than 200 students—Applied Mathematics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Physics, Statistics, many of the Engineering disciplines, and even in some of the Nutritional and Food Sciencesunderrepresentation is even more magnified. Also, within Letters and Sciences majors, Chicanx/Latinx students are disproportionately underrepresented in Cognitive Science, Economics, and Managerial Economics. The available data do not offer reasons for the under-representation of Chicanx/Latinx students in these majors, however reasons may include ineligibility for admission into a selective major or the impression that these majors are difficult or unwelcoming and should be avoided.3 Irrespective of the reasons, which warrant further study, the under enrollment of Chicanx/Latinx students in these majors undermines UC Davis’ ability to produce a diverse workforce in many important areas. Majors such as Chemistry, Biology, or Engineering (to name a few) are in high demand and necessary for graduate or professional degrees.
Chicanx/Latinx students are also less likely to graduate in a STEM major than their non-Chicanx/Latinx peers, and data provided by the UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness suggests that they may also be more likely to switch out of a STEM major and/or change majors at a moment that leads them to be less likely to graduate in four years as they had planned. The so-called “flight,” but perhaps better named “push” or “weed out” phenomena from STEM majors of Chicanx/Latinx, and other URM students, and effective interventions to prevent it, deserve more serious study at UC Davis.
Choosing a college major—STEM or non-STEM—impacts a students’ future employment, earning potential, health, happiness, and level of debt. Majors also serve as opportunities to explore issues of identity, sense of belonging, and mindset growth. While some majors provide clear paths into specific careers; students can find many path ways into successful, fulfilling, and meaningful careers.
Strada-Gallup’s Education Consumer Pulse survey (2017, September), explored how individuals choose their field to study and how they perceived the helpfulness of each kind of advice. Respondents, including more than 22,000 U.S. adults, were asked to name up to three sources of advice about their major and rate their helpfulness. Responses were divided into four broad categories:
- formal: counselors and the media
- informal social network: friends, family and community leaders
- informal school-based: college staff and professors, high school teachers and coaches
- informal work-based: employers, coworkers, experienced professionals and the military.
Among the key findings were that informal social networks have been the most common source of advice for individuals over time.
Having the familiarity of parents or other family members who have gone to college offers an advantage to individuals when choosing a major. The college experiences of family members provide a useful source of information in the decision-making process. Not surprisingly, first-generation college students were less likely than others to get advice from their informal social network those members were not likely to have experiences to impart. While first-generation students, Blacks and Hispanics rated all sources of advice highly (informal and formal) they found the most helpful advice to be from formal sources such as a high school or college counselor, other college staff, or an employer (p. 5). Seventy-four percent of Blacks and 69% of Hispanics rate guidance from formal sources as helpful compared with just 62% of whites and 65% of Asians. All groups, except Hispanics, consider informal workbased sources of advice as most helpful (Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Pulse Survey, 2017, September, p. 16).
Comments by members of the Chicanx/Latinx Alumni Association supported what we read in the research. Members also provided numerous ideas and suggestions for partnerships that would supplement formal sources of information with community-based networks that could bolster support for students choosing and changing majors.
Physical and Mental Health; Housing and Food Security
Aside from academic skills and high school preparation skills as predictors of college completion and success (Adelman, C., 2006; Long, M. C., Conger, D., & Iatarola, p., 2012; National Institute on Postsecondary Education, Libraries, and Lifelong Learning, 1999; Venezia, A. & Jaeger, L., 2013), researchers have noted several other explanations for low college persistence such as financial constraints (Bettinger, E., 2004; Dynarski, S., 2005; Scott-Clayton, J., 2011; Stinebrickner, R. & Stinebrickner, T., 2009). While not unique to the experiences of Chicanx/ Latinx students, the high proportion of first generation and low-income status among Chicanx/Latinx students means they experience food and housing insecurity at high rates.
Larger societal trends such as income inequality likely hamper some students’ ability to succeed at UC Davis. Alyssa West, a Program Coordinator in Chicana/o Studies, conducted a survey of students associated with the department and found that respondents reported facing food insecurity (11%), housing instability (17%), and homelessness (6%) as hindrances in their success and well-being. Institutional barriers along with the lack of resources or an awareness of resources (both on and off campus) likely contribute to poorer academic and health outcomes (43%). One faculty member noted that food security is “a serious issue in overall health, mental health, and academic performance,” and said, “meals should be included as part of the tuition.”4 It is important to recognize the broader impacts of inequitable opportunities caused by these barriers for Rising Scholars to participate in research, networking with faculty, and interacting with peers. These valuable experiences form the foundation for academic success and often lead to opportunities for post-baccalaureate achievements. Participation is often dependent upon a student’s ability and capacity to take advantage of them, financially, physically, mentally, or with respect to other family and personal commitments.
In regard to well-being and mental health care for students, there is a perceived stigma around help-seeking behaviors and mental health in general. Outreach programs and the visibility of Counseling Services staff in the community help decrease stigma. It is essential that the Counseling Services office continues to provide culturally-responsive mental health care services for students. In addition, some Chicanx/Latinx students prefer to meet with a counselor who shares aspects of their identities or who can provide counseling in Spanish, thus it is important that Counseling Services maintains a diverse staff. Students who are referred off-campus for longer term counseling or a higher level of care, often find it difficult to find counselors who share aspects of their identities or who provide counseling in their preferred language. Students who are referred off-campus may have difficulty covering the co-pay. In 2019-2020, students with SHIP will have a co-pay of $5 for off-campus counseling appointments with in-network providers. For those who do not have SHIP, the co-pays can be higher.5
Optimizing the medical care of our students at a Hispanic Serving Institution requires a multi-pronged approach to overcome challenges and seize opportunities when it comes to the UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS) staff to (a) understand health risks that face Chicanx/Latinx patients, (b) help to prepare patients to address risks; (c) ensure that patients can access resources; (d) be aware of and help overcoming barriers to care for students, particularly those who are concerned because of their undocumented status; and (e) be collaborative members of the UC Davis community.
Appropriate provider and clinical staff education are key, in order to help ensure that we are screening for these concerns and addressing them appropriately when they arise. Health risks differ among different populations and Chicanx/Latinx in the United States have different degrees of illness or health risks than other groups. Some of these differences are positive, including overall 35% less heart disease, 49% less cancer, and a lower death rate overall than the non-Hispanic white population. However, Chicanx/Latinx in the United States do have about a 50% higher death rate from diabetes, 24% more poorly-controlled high blood pressure, and 23% more obesity when compared with the non-Hispanic white population. We also have to further educate our providers that while it is important to understand risks for Chicanx/Latinx as a group, that there are many subgroups for which certain risks are higher than others. For example, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are about twice as likely to die from diabetes as non-Hispanic white individuals. Mexicans also are nearly twice as likely to die from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis as non-Hispanic white individuals. Smoking overall among Hispanics (14%) is less common than among the non-Hispanic white population (24%) but is high among Puerto Rican males (26%) and Cuban males (22%).6
It is not enough to know how to help patients manage these conditions once they develop. The true opportunity lies in preventing these conditions through health education and in clinical staff partnering with our own internal resources (including Health Education and Promotion and Nutrition Services) as well as campus partners to help students understand how to address modifiable risk factors and empower individuals to optimize their own health. We need to make sure we are allowing for time, as appropriate, for clinical staff to participate in these meaningful partnerships.
As we ensure that we have the proper staff training in place and that we are able to both successfully screen for and treat conditions for at-risk patients, we must help students access this information and medical care through messaging and signage across all campus locations that accurately reflects our diverse student body; overcoming language barriers; and providing culturally congruent medical care that is in agreement with the cultural values, beliefs, and practices of our students.
Apprehension about healthcare goes deeper than issues of access. For some students, it may also partially derive from a long history of preferring non-Western medicine, a cultural uneasiness with the American style of healthcare, or a cultural tradition of privacy and individual pride. We need to listen to our students and respond appropriately when we are not addressing concerns in a way that respects the individual in front of us and their background and beliefs, and we need to continue to provide multiple avenues for communication for students to express their opinions and concerns.
Increased staff education and awareness of the barriers to care, including undocumented status, requires ensuring that Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS) staff are aware of rules regarding confidentiality and are able to direct students to appropriate resources to get accurate information and meaningful assistance. The participation of SHCS staff will be essential given their responsibility advocating for the health of our students. They are best positioned to coordinate with campus partners to help improve access to resources to support preventative care and healthy living.
Financial Well-Being and the Opportunity to Build Wealth
The University of California boasts low (under 10%) debt-to-earnings ratios for 2- and 5- year graduates and that UC student debt remains below the national average for both public and private non-profit 4-year institutions (UC Accountability Report, 2018, chapter 2). However, upticks in food insecurity and homelessness among students suggests less borrowing may reflect fear rather than lack of need. Admissions staff also reports that students from Chicanx/Latinx and first-generation backgrounds perceive that a UC education is out of financial reach. Further research on student loan trends among Chicanx/Latinx and first-generation students might point toward new directions for financial aid and financial literacy counseling.
The tension between elite markers of institutional quality and access/inclusivity that supports social mobility plays out in the day to day lives of many students—especially low income and first generation—in the form of anxiety over their ability to compete, imposter syndromes in the classroom, daily financial concerns, and insecurity about what the future might hold (Labaree, D. F., 2017).
As a public, land grant institution, UC Davis has an obligation to support California’s economy by interrupting poverty cycles. Supporting income- and wealth-creation ultimately leads to healthier tax contributions and, we would hope, legislative re-investments in education and other social safety net programs that continue the virtuous cycle. The 2018 UC Accountability Report notes that “UC enrolls a greater percentage of low-income students (from the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution) than other four-year institutions in California. Recent data made available through a partnership with the Equality for Opportunity Project show that more than one in three UC alumni who come from the bottom 20 percent of income rise to the top 20 percent of income as adults, based on the entering cohorts of 1999 to 2005.” At UC Davis, 52% of children who were from the bottom fifth of incomes as students moved to the top fifth as adults. By age 34, UC Davis students have a median wage of $61,600, which ranks 10th out of out of 369 selective public colleges (New York Times Company, 2018).7 Despite this encouraging data, the amount of debt accrued by lower-income students weighs more heavily on their ability to take advantage of a UC education and take greater risks with their future financial prospects.
In our engagements with the campus community, we detected a disconnect between students’ experience of financial aid and research on student loan debt and what we learned from the University of California and financial aid office personnel.
Some students reported an inability to afford food and housing; that housing is more expensive than they budgeted; that the costs of books, technology, and incidentals are often unexpected. Students admitted that they have a fear of overborrowing and not being able to pay back the loans once they complete their education. Some students felt the burdens of work to support family back home, since education was seen as postponing their ability to contribute to the household. Others talked about having to choose between work and taking advantage of opportunities to do research or participate in the life of college. Finally, they reported difficulties around getting information about financial aid and personal financial wellness (HSI Taskforce Student Panel, University of California Davis, Manetti Shrem Museum, December 12, 2018).
In our conversations with UC Davis financial aid office personnel, we heard the concern that some students were under-borrowing, and that when students request additional assistance mid-quarter, the financial aid personnel counseled them to take the additional amount of the loans that they have been offered. They also mentioned low participation in and engagement with their financial wellness educational offerings. In its annual accountability report the University of California boasts of lower costs of attendance than AAU private institutions (slightly higher than AAU publics), stable net cost of attendance after financial aid for California residents, and that nearly 60% of students think “the total cost of attending the school is manageable.” The report also notes that “the average inflation-adjusted debt at graduation of student borrowers increased by 7.9 percent over the past 15 years” and “50% of UC undergraduates graduate with no debt at all.” Finally, “by five years after graduation, all of UC’s baccalaureate programs have debt-to-earnings ratios of less than 10 percent.” The report also notes that UC enrolls “a higher percentage of Pell Grant recipients than any other top research university in the country” and “a large proportion of UC students come from low-income families,” which suggests that traditional metrics of affordability may need further evaluation in the context of the types of students that attend our institution (University of California, 2018a, chapter 2).
Meanwhile, research on national financial aid trends has shown that there are disproportionate rates of default on student loans among African Americans and Chicanx/ Latinx. Of all Black undergraduate borrowers in a 2004 cohort, 49% defaulted on at least one federal loan in 12 years. The rate for Hispanic or Latino was 36%. For white students, the rate was 21% and 29% for students overall. Completion helps, but not completely. If the students attained a bachelor’s degree, the percentages were 23% of Black or African American students, 14% of Hispanic or Latino students, and 6% for white students (Fain, P., 2017, October 17).
We also discovered studies that argue that student loan debt has a disproportionate effect on students of color and contributes to continued wealth inequality (Houle, J. N., & Addo, F. R., 2018). Other research shows that student loan debt can decrease home ownership rates for recent graduates in their mid-20s (Mezza, A., Ringo, D., Sherlund, S. & Sommer, K., 2016); reduce the probability of enrollment in a graduate or degree program (Malcolm, L. E. & Dowd, A C., 2012); and reduce the probability of working in public interest jobs (Rothstein, J. & Rouse, C. E., 2007, May). This research suggests that overburdening students with student loan debt may actually contradict the mission of a land grant institution with a commitment to equity and creating pathways to public service and the professoriate for underrepresented minorities.
Crafting a full solution to this issue is not within the scope of this report, but we would pose the following questions for further research: Are there better metrics that will measure not income but access to opportunities to build wealth? What socio-cultural factors play into decision-making around borrowing? Around patterns of spending, investing, and saving? Does the institution adequately account for all expenses related to an education and to living in and around Davis? By disaggregating data around income, race/ethnicity, and family background, can the University of California do a better job of delivering truly equitable financial aid? What culturally-responsive strategies can better engage students and their families in conversations about their financial wellness? It seems clear that more research is needed to evaluate financial wellness and the impact of student loan debt on Chicanx/Latinx students who attend the University of California.
Reimagining the Structure of Undergraduate Education at UC Davis
Students who engaged with the HSI Taskforce were excited by the potential for innovation in the classroom. Students called for an evolution from teaching models that emphasize transfer of content to those that emphasize active learning and connections with scholars (faculty and peer). They asked for learning spaces where they might feel safe to explore, engage, exchange, contribute, and develop as human beings. One undergraduate student lamented that it had taken her until her senior year to recognize that her culture and bilingualism were assets in her education.
To start, we must recognize the value of incorporating multicultural perspectives and experiences in our curriculum. In her 1994 book, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the concept of Culturally Responsive Teaching: an equity-based, student-centered methodology that recognizes the centrality of culture in learning. It recognizes that culture drives how students receive and communicate information and that relationships to family and community must be integrated into the learning process. The Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) Model, developed by that project’s Founding Director, Samuel D. Museus, serves as a useful guide for further investigation, proposing “nine indicators of culturally engaging campus environments that engage students’ racially diverse cultural backgrounds or identities, reflect their diverse needs as they navigate their respective institutions, and facilitate their success in college” (Museus, 2014, p. 210). These indicators fall into two categories: cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness. The CECE model indicators are reflected in programs such as the UC Davis Special Transitional Enrichment Program (STEP), which has helped increase the retention of first-generation and low-income students. Other elements of this model can serve as models for program review and curriculum development.
One critique the Taskforce heard is that ladder faculty do not spend enough time teaching undergraduates, which results in several unintended consequences: (a) It disconnects the research and teaching missions of the institution; (b) It propagates a two-tiered system of faculty positions; and (c) It creates a culture that fails to prioritize teaching excellence. If there is an assumption that not enough ladder faculty are teaching undergraduate students, one faculty member simply suggested that the best way to put more ladder faculty into the classroom is to address the quarter system itself, suggesting that a semester-based academic calendar would give faculty more time to focus on teaching.8 Institutions who have instituted such a change have often done so under the guise of easing the path of transfer students or creating system-wide consistency. So far, the research on the topic is limited. Some research suggests that a switch to semesters not only does not matter but might actually hurt student success. However, this research, in suggesting a correlation between student success or lack of success and a switch in schedules—in one case, evaluating student success just two years after the switch was made—would seem to fail to comprehend other factors at work. Few studies directly address the question of racial equity.9 One of the perhaps unintentional benefits of such a switch is that it would force a complete redesign of courses at the institution, which could be either an opportunity or a distraction. These issues are hugely complex, controversial, and political—this Taskforce gave us the opportunity to address these directly and to simply ask that the institution not stop short in bold thinking about how to make change.
More research must be conducted to assess how factors such as class size and modes of instruction and assessments could help UC Davis close the achievement gaps in ways that go beyond traditional indicators of success (e.g., grades or graduations rates) and measure a students’ actual learning and their growth and development as public citizens. To be sure, efficiency considerations in education cannot be ignored. Budget realities and the need to increase even more the number of students we educate dictate that UC Davis learn to deliver an effective education as efficiently as possible to as many students as possible. The problem is when efficiency considerations consume our commitment to deliver a high-quality education to all students. The solutions, some of which we include in the recommendations in this report, will call for compromise and will require the participation of everyone.
Two different types of courses could be better resourced in the budget model to incentivize equity-minded practices for educational excellence include: Common Goods Courses, which are lower division courses that deliver critical content and skills for a high proportion of students in majors outside the official department, college, or school delivering the course. Another criteria would be courses that also highly benefit from a high-touch, high-impact approach to their delivery. Math, statistics, and composition are all courses that might fit these descriptions. Student Success Courses are high-enrollment courses that are needed for students to graduate on time and where there are critical achievement gaps for Rising Scholars compared to all students. A realistic number would be 40-45 courses, excluding courses that are simply popular (e.g. the coffee course).
Institutional inquiry into what factors may explain the academic performance of Rising Scholars at UC Davis that transcend a simplistic student deficit explanation should also include identifying and questioning structural barriers such as those created by an over-reliance on an institutional budget model that favors the delivery of an efficient education over other important educational values and a research culture that undervalues meaningful contributions to teaching. A combined emphasis on efficiency and an undervaluation of teaching yields a culture where unwieldy class sizes and overloaded faculty are tolerated without regard to their effect on learning, teaching, or mentoring; where learning outcomes are underdeveloped or narrowly structured to ignore the learning of important skills or even values; where outdated and ineffective delivery models of instruction (e.g., lecture) remain the norm; and where learning assessments are too few and even too biased (e.g., standardized tests).
- 1. For more information on actual & predicted graduation rates and achievement gap data by demographic groups please visit the Student Retention Advisory Committee Report (2017) pages 5-6.
- 2. For more information on undergraduate academic performance please visit the UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness (CEE), Office of Undergraduate Education website: https://cee.ucdavis.edu/tags/research.
- 3. Note that several additional majors will become selective majors in coming years. In 2020, Applied Physics, Physics, Mathematics, and Pharmaceutical Chemistry will become selective Majors. In 2021, Managerial Economics and Economics will become Selective Majors.
- 4. Interview by HSI Taskforce with an Academic Senate faculty, University of California, Davis, February 28, 2019. Some interviews conducted by the HSI Taskforce were confidential; the names of interviewees are withheld by mutual agreement.
- 5. Paul Kim, Psy.D., Interim Director, Counseling Services, Student Health and Counseling Services, University of California, Davis, e-mail to HSI Task Force, March 7, 2019.
- 6. Cindy Schorzman, MD, FAAFP, Medical Director, Student Health and Counseling Services, University of California, Davis, e-mail to HSI Taskforce, March 8, 2019;
- 7. One caveat, however, according to a recent UC Accountability Report is that “social mobility may be correlated with the types of majors that students choose. Engineering and computer science majors tend to earn more than other UC undergraduate alumni, but how much UC alumni make depends on their industry” (UC Accountability Report, 2018, 63-64).
- 8. Interview by HSI Taskforce with a faculty member, University of California, Davis, February 21, 2019
- 9. See for example, Bostwick, V., Fischer, S. & Lang, M. (2018, March 7) Semesters or quarters? The effect of the academic calendar on postsecondary graduation rates, Association for Education Finance and Policy Conference; Gordon, L. (2019, March 26), Cal State joins national trend to switch to 15-week semesters EdSource; Smith, M. (2012, February 7) Strength in Numbers, Inside Higher E; Gibbens, B., Williams, M. A., Strain, A. K. & Hoff, C. D. M. (2015) Comparison of biology student performance in quarter and semester systems, College and University 90, 3; Pant, M. (2012, March 30), Colleges Spend Millions to Switch to Semesters, Dayton Daily News.