Academic Equity Grant recipients begin research work, student success initiative

Xiaodan Hu
Xiaodan Hu

Xiaodan Hu wants to know more about why, and how many, students do or do not succeed at the NIU College of Education.

Jodi Lampi wants to strengthen the Academic Literacy and Learning Program she directs as part of her work as an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Both are doing so this semester thanks to Academic Equity Grants.

Money awarded last year to the College of Education by the NIU Foundation is funding the two faculty-led projects aimed at closing academic equity gaps in the college.

Each initiativerequires the recipients to submit written summaries after completion of their projects and to meet with college leadership to discuss their findings and results and to make recommendations for implementation.

Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and Associate Dean Bill Pitney, who currently is serving as acting vice provost for Faculty Affairs, invited grant proposals of research studies to examine the academic equity gap or student-facing initiatives, such as a mentoring program, student success coaching, new support services, mentored research opportunities for students of color or other innovative programming.

Hu’s work fits in the former category.

The assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education is examining data for three cohorts of undergraduate students who started to enroll in the college from 2010 to 2012.

Giving each cohort a six-year window to graduate means that those students already have had a chance to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Of those who failed to do so, Hu hopes to determine who they are – More-privileged students? At-risk students? – and why they left without finishing their education.

“I have two questions. First, how are we doing compared with NIU overall and then with comparable institutions in Illinois, such as other four-year, public institutions?” Hu says.

“Second, I’m looking at the College of Education to see if there is an achievement gap, and, if there is, what the predictive variables are for that,” she adds. “Is it because they’re enrolling part-time? Is it because they’re working? Or is it because of their high school achievement?”

As she breaks down the numbers, and as she follows the new NIU Strategic Enrollment Management Plan’s belief that the university could become a designated Hispanic Serving Institution within the next several years, Hu sees further angles for her research.

“Right now, there’s an important question to ask – not whether students are ready for college but whether our colleges are ready for students,” she says. “The reality out there is that our student demographic is changing. Are we serving these current and future students? There is also a growing percentage of post-traditional students. Are we ready to serve them and to meet their demands?”

Hu hopes that her work sparks College of Education faculty to hold serious and productive conversations about retention and student success, to develop or improve intervention in support of those goals and to share best practices.

Logo of the Bill and Melinda Gates FoundationConcurrently, she is continuing a related study as part of the Gates Foundation-funded Bending the Curve initiative.

Work begun by Paul Attewell, professor of sociology and urban education at City University of New York, identified early indicators of student success that predict with high accuracy whether students will retain in the first semester and will graduate within six years.

Hu is one of several scholars chosen to replicate Attewell’s findings in other states, including Illinois, Texas and Virginia. All were able to return “highly identical results,” says Hu, who conducted the project with 48 community colleges and campuses in Illinois.

Working with the Illinois Community College Board, she now is building positive and sharable outcomes from variations seen in the numbers.

“Some are doing better than the projections and some are not,” she says. “If the predicted retention rate is 60 percent, but you actually have 70 percent, what are you doing differently?”

Lampi, meanwhile, is applying her Academic Equity Grant money to benefit the 450 to 600 Huskies in NIU’s “developmental educational population, formerly known as the ‘remedial’ students.”

Jodi Lampi
Jodi Lampi

“That word often gives them a negative stigma in the public light as well as in their educational experiences. Many students aren’t reading or writing in K-12 as much as we would like, so some struggle here,” she says. “I’m working with them on long-term stamina for reading texts, for being able to pick apart text and to develop critical thinking and long-term comprehension.”

But “because it’s a support program, I don’t get the financial support,” she says. “When it comes to adult literacy, there are not a whole lot of entities that support it in the way they support childhood literacy. We have a stigma in our society: If you can’t read, you’re not that smart.”

Part of her strategy is to bring the “One Book, One Community” model to DeKalb.

Students enrolled in the Academic Literacy and Learning Program will read assigned texts and discuss them with family members and residents of the university community, including faculty.

“It reintroduces the pleasure of reading. It fosters response to text, engagement with text and an exchange of ideas with others who have different perceptions than they do,” Lampi says. “We can have book talks, reading circles or panel discussion with community members to talk about the concepts in the books.”

Her program will not conflict with the university’s Common Reading Experience.

“We are specifically supporting our underprepared college readers,” she says. “We also will align with our curriculum, and choose texts that might align with some of our students’ interests or that are relatable to them.”

Over the course of the spring and summer, Lampi will advertise her “One Book, One Community” program locally with fliers that invite participation and will detail events for the fall.

She also is trying to determine how to fund a personal appearance by an author; many charge up to $40,000 for one speech, she says, a cost far beyond her budget.

What she knows for sure, however, is the positive outcomes her project will achieve.

“Reading for pleasure often promotes and enhances literacy skills over the lifespan,” Lampi says. “Enhancing literacy in the home impacts, and creates, more success of students. Getting students comfortable with talking about their ideas promotes critical thinking.”

It also counters stereotypes, she adds.

“We know it’s often not the curriculum students are struggling with, or their capacity to be strong students, but non-academic baggage,” she says. “If we can excite our students to read, and to bring their families to activities, it encourages family support for college and students’ own motivation for attending class.”

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