Spotlight on Innovation: How Delta State’s Okra Scholars Program Hopes to Provide Systematic Intervention for the Most At-Risk Students

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The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

At Delta State University in Cleveland, MS, students who score between 17 to 21 on the ACT, are Pell-eligible, and are first-generation college students or residents of the Mississippi Delta face additional challenges to stay in college. These students accounted for more than half of DSU’s Fall 2012 freshmen class. This range represents a student cohort for whom timely and consistent intervention can have the greatest impact.

To help those students finish their degree and do so in four to five years, DSU has established the Okra Scholars program, which will use a $1.6 million First in the World grant to establish a holistic, integrated student support approach for this targeted group of at-risk students. We reached out to project director Christy Riddle to learn more.

A Closer Look at the Okra Scholars

A Commitment to Completion
The first thing the Okra Scholars will do is make a Commitment to Completion. This is a mutual commitment: “The students commit to earning a college degree within four to five years, and DSU commits to providing the support system essential for them to graduate,” Riddle explains. “We’re hoping to reveal their academic and personal capabilities and potential. Consequently, students will perform at their optimal levels in college and successfully complete their degrees.”
Support for Students
In keeping this commitment, DSU will provide support for students through:

  • Faculty mentors
    …who will maintain on-going, consistent communication with their assigned Okra Scholars, and who will proactively engage the team with any concerns about a student. The faculty mentors will act as professionals for academic support and advice, and create an engaging and safe environment to communicate with Okra Scholars through social media and traditional one-on-one sessions.
  • An Okra Scholars programmatic team
    …who will provide academic and career counseling to help students stay on track through graduation and beyond. The team will use data to provide strategic, targeted support that can be used to plan effective academic workshops and professional development trainings. They will also use information about students’ personal interests, work and social activities, study skills, time managing abilities and other data that help identify factors that hinder success.
  • Peer mentors
    …drawn from returning Okra Scholars.

The Okra Scholars will be drawn from a pool of eligible students who are invited to participate. Eligible students include those who score between 17 and 21 on the ACT, are Mississippi Delta natives, Pell-grant eligible or first-generation college students. This spring, DSU randomly selected 50 students from the pool as the initial cohort; those 50 students will remain in the Okra Scholars program all four years. New groups of students will enter the program each fall.

According to Riddle, there has been great interest in the program from students this year, and DSU is looking into increasing the number of students selected next year.

Keys to the Project’s Success

Maintaining student motivation will be the biggest challenge, Riddle points out, and they are structuring the Okra Scholars project to anticipate and meet those needs. Streamlined and engaging academic and career support services throughout a student’s academic journey are vital for the project’s success.

Support needs to go beyond academics to fostering a supportive relationship between students and the campus, Riddle emphasizes: “Students at DSU are not just a number, and DSU’s faculty, staff, community and student body reflect this belief.”

Many of the supports built into the Okra Scholars project will address obstacles for first-generation, underprepared and underrepresented students by providing:

  • Access to career-focused interest assessments for students to identify personal strengths
  • Cultural and service learning experiences
  • Faculty mentors who guide participants through college transitional issues
  • Collaborative learning classes with others who share common experiences
  • Academic counseling and coaching to address deficient academic skills
  • Embedded professional development workshops for students to excel in employment and internships

Why You Should Watch this Project

“As the priority to effectively educate underprepared students increases,” Riddle remarks, “universities will look to employ intervention strategies that systematically support those students. We are looking to provide integrated services that are scalable and replicable.”

What’s especially interesting to us at AI is the targeted nature of their approach. Delta State has taken a close look at leading indicators that students may be at risk, relying not on national data but on an analysis of their own historical data. It’s a step in the direction of predictive analytics, which will be critical in allocating resources to where they matter most in moving the needle on persistence and completion rates.

What data is your institution looking at? How do you predict student success?