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Demography is Not Destiny

UC Riverside is Proof that Diversity is No Barrier to Excellence

Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education Points to Campus Success

(June 8, 2007)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( —- UC Riverside graduates 64 percent of its students in six years, and it doesn’t matter whether they are rich or poor.
That fact is remarkable when compared to some other universities, where low-income students lag 20 percentage points behind their wealthier classmates.
It is so remarkable, that USA Today on June 6 published an opinion piece that points out UC Riverside’s success with students who qualify for federal Pell Grants.

“The knee-jerk explanation — that Riverside must succeed by limiting the number of poor and minority students admitted — is wrong. Riverside is very diverse, especially with Latino students, and 45% of its students receive federal Pell grants for poor students,” wrote opinion editor Richard Whitmire in the USA Today issue of June 6. “The real answer emerges from a study recently released by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education: Riverside treats students differently. Incoming freshmen get year-long orientation sessions that reach out to low-income students who are the first in their family to attend colleges. Those students get offered extra sessions by professors. A special campus center is devoted to encouraging minority students to take on math and science majors. In short, the university pays a whole lot of attention to solving the problem.”

The USA Today piece, and a new report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, is music to the ears of Ellen Wartella, UCR’s executive vice chancellor.

“We have noticed this trend on our campus, but I can not tell you how proud I am that this independent agency is confirming and endorsing the work we have been doing here,” Wartella said. “We are committed to student success at UCR.”

The report, called “Demography is not Destiny: Increasing the Graduation Rates of Low-Income College Students at Large Public Universities” reveals that student retention programs designed for the low-income students can improve college graduation rates without narrowing access.

“The solution for higher student retention rates is not to raise admission standards,” says report co-author and Pell Institute Director Colleen O’Brien. “But to be successful at helping students graduate requires a commitment of resources, energy and leadership throughout the campus and a clear understanding of the students who are the targets of your efforts.”

That understanding of student needs is frequently absent, says O’Brien, who, with co-author Jennifer Engle, led the study of 14 public universities. When colleges and universities don’t understand the academic, financial, cultural and social barriers students face, they invest in retention without sufficient impact.

Moreover, many institutions don’t even know how their low-income students are faring because they only calculate overall retention rates.

“Demography is not Destiny” documents research conducted by the Pell Institute on public universities with relatively high numbers of federal Pell Grant recipients, an indicator of low-income students served. Researchers predicted each institution’s graduation rates based on a number of factors, including the academic quality of the incoming students and the economic diversity of the student body. It turns out that some of the institutions were performing better than expected in terms of graduation rates, despite serving academically and demographically diverse student populations, while others were performing below expectations.

Higher performing institutions helped students succeed by:

Personalizing the undergraduate experience by making early contact with students in first-year programs, closely monitoring student progress through advising, “reducing” class size through supplemental instruction, and providing individualized support in special programs.

Emphasizing the teaching mission acculturating new faculty to it and by rewarding faculty through promotion and tenure for supporting it.

Creating a shared sense of community by promoting student involvement even at largely commuter campuses.

Developing an institutional culture that promotes success with strong leadership, clear goals and commitment of resources.

“Colleges and universities will see themselves in the profiles offered in this report and find strategies that will work on their campuses,” O’Brien said. “To ensure success for all of their students, institutions have to keep the needs of their low-income students in mind when putting these strategies into place.”
“Demography is not Destiny” also offers several recommendations for institutional leaders and policymakers to improve retention and graduation of low-income students:

• Track the progress of low-income students in relation to retention and other benchmarks when possible to improve the delivery of services and students’ outcomes as well as to ensure the efficient use of limited resources. The U.S. Department of Education could further strengthen support for such tracking by providing the incentive of federal money to institutions that address achievement gaps that are identified as a result.
• Implement provisional admissions programs (such as admitting some students with lower SAT/ACT test scores and monitoring progress) to increase economic diversity, as many of the institutions in this study had. Evaluation research that shows that participants in such programs have similar or higher persistence rates as the overall student population despite entering with lower high school GPAs and/or SAT scores.
• Reward institutions that provide an excellent education for all while maintaining access for low-income populations. Systems and states may need to create better incentives and reward research universities for serving both access and excellence missions.



The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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