Spotlight on Innovation: How the South Dakota Higher Ed System is Transforming Support for American Indian and Low-Income 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.

In a recent initiative, South Dakota institutions are working specifically to address the needs of the state’s American Indian and low-income students. This demographic faces unique challenges, in part because the majority of South Dakota’s American Indian students live on rural reservations or in other rural locales and may be reluctant to leave family and community to pursue higher education.

The South Dakota higher education system first addressed some of these issues through a 2012 pilot program that served similar populations of underrepresented, low-income students.  Now South Dakota Jump Start Project Director Rhoda Smith hopes to tackle those issues more comprehensively through the South Dakota Jump Start program, which will operate at seven South Dakota institutions through a $3.6 million First in the World grant.

South Dakota Jump Start and “Earn and Learn”

The most exciting component of Jump Start is the Earn and Learn program, which allows students to live on campus, earn college credit and work part time during the summers before their freshman, sophomore and junior years.  The first summer, students will be employed part-time on campus while also taking credit courses before the fall semester begins.  “A modest amount of employment can be a good retention tool,” Smith explains.

The second year of Earn and Learn students might choose campus employment, a part-time off-campus job, or an internship where they earn money and college credit.  Students will do internships or undergraduate research during their third summer.  For many, simply having a job lined up will be a relief, because unemployment levels reach 80 to 90 percent on some South Dakota reservations. Earn and Learn fills a crucial role in providing students employment experience and in addressing financial concerns.

Other components of the program include:

  • Access Advisors who will work as regional admissions counselors and assist students in college preparations such as scheduling the ACT, visiting campuses and applying for financial aid.
  • Summer Bridge, offered during a student’s first summer. Students will earn between two and five credits and participate in a Living Learning community that combines academic activities with cultural and other activities to foster bonds between students, mentors and advisors.
  • A Lending Library, which will lend students course materials, including laptops if required by a course.
  • Orientation activities for American Indian, low-income and general population students
  • Student mentors who will function as an integral part of the Living Learning Communities and engage with students during their first year.  Students from the first Jump Start cohort will be identified and trained to serve as mentors for the second Jump Start cohort.
  • Jump Start Advisors, who will work closely with students, families, and college staff to provide academic and non-academic support, connect students to resources and create plans for success.

The first Jump Start cohort will begin in Summer 2015, as 450 students enter the program.  A second cohort of 450 will begin in Summer 2016.  South Dakota State University is partnering with Oglala Lakota College, a tribal college located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and five state institutions to offer the program.  The other state institutions that will feature Jump Start are Black Hills State University, Dakota State University, Northern State University, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and the University of South Dakota.

Current projections expect first-year retention rates of Jump Start students to increase from 65 to 75 percent, and that 54 percent of the cohort will continue to senior year. “The potential to increase the current graduation rate for this population goes from 39 percent to nearly 50 percent,” Smith notes.

Keys to Success

Smith emphasizes that building relationships is absolutely essential to the success of the project. Students need to be supported through a network of fellow students, mentors, advisors and faculty, and also by their family, tribal leaders and community to succeed. Jump Start will strengthen existing relationships and build new ones through a variety of outreach activities.  Their goal is to build strong connections so that family members will feel comfortable picking up the phone or emailing the Access Advisor if they have questions.

Hiring the right advisors is also vital. “They have to be culturally aware, professionally excellent and personally invested in the students this program serves,” Smith explains.  The Living Learning Communities will provide further support and help students develop a sense of place. “It’s really trying to create a strong network for those students,” Smith notes.

Adequately addressing financial concerns, providing rigorous academic support and advising, and building momentum so that students and their families can see how they are making progress toward their goals are equally important to Jump Start’s success.

Why You Should Watch this Project

South Dakota Jump Start is especially interesting in its approach to challenges specific to the region’s population.  The program has to contend with the logistical challenges of educational access in rural areas, cultural challenges, and financial challenges, and if successful, will also lead to stronger ongoing connections with American Indian high schools and communities in the state, and increase opportunities for future collaboration.