Iowa schools respond to White House college access challenge

Iowa State and Drake university take pledge to expand educational opportunities at summit

Vanessa Miller
Published: January 16 2014 | 3:55 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:14 am in

During a White House summit on improving college access on Thursday, leaders of more than 100 colleges and universities – including Iowa State and Drake universities – vowed to take specific steps to expand educational opportunities.

ISU President Steven Leath, among other things, said his university hopes to raise an extra $85 million over the next three years for financial aid. Drake, in addition to making financial aid a central fundraising goal, announced plans to implement a pilot science technology engineering and math program for low-income high school students.

The University of Iowa, as part of the White House-backed “commitment to action,” also on Thursday announced a new “Storm Lake Scholars Program” targeting Storm Lake High School’s graduating class of 250, many of whom are low-income. Although UI officials didn’t attend the White House summit due to scheduling conflicts, the university vowed to bring 10 Storm Lake graduates to campus in the 2015 academic year and provide them with tools to succeed.

The summit, aimed at helping more low-income students enroll in college and earn a degree, involved only those colleges, universities and organizations willing to commit to taking concrete steps toward improved access.

ISU President Leath said in a news release that he discussed with President Barack Obama the importance of access to higher education and appreciated the chance to be involved “from the perspective of a land-grant university where access and opportunity have always been a priority.”

Summit participants had to commit to action by either connecting more low-income students to college and helping them graduate; increasing the pool of students preparing for college through early interventions; “leveling the playing field” in college advising and test preparation; or strengthening remediation to help academically underprepared students complete college.

Commitments came not only from colleges and universities but from state leaders, regent boards, and organizations like the “I Have a Dream” Foundation.

At Iowa State, commitments beyond increasing financial aid opportunities for low-income students include adding a staff member to help recruit and support under-privileged students and improving STEM exposure and outcomes for that population.

ISU vowed to improve STEM outcomes by investing in school, after school and summer learning programs like 4-H. The university also spent the last year working with two local elementary schools to develop resources for low-income and minority students – including the shot at a full-tuition scholarship to ISU.

Drake University, as part of Thursday’s summit, announced a partnership with the Principal Financial Group, the Des Moines Public Schools and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines to implement a pilot STEM program geared toward low-income students. The program will pair up to 20 high school students with Drake student mentors and professional mentors.

“Qualified students will be admitted to Drake with the necessary financial support, participate in internships while in college, and upon graduation and fulfillment of program requirements be offered employment at PFG,” according to information Drake submitted to the White House.

UI officials also described new STEM initiatives, including a pilot project to “flip” large STEM courses from a lecture format to a more active and engaged style. The Biology and Geosciences departments are redesigning their curricula to reflect the change, “which research supports as a mechanism for increasing the proportion of underrepresented students in STEM disciplines.”

The summit, which some academics have criticized as a political stunt, comes at a time when the Iowa Board of Regents and Gov. Terry Branstad are pushing for a second straight tuition freeze for resident undergraduate students attending Iowa’s three public universities.

Branstad during his Condition of the State address earlier this week called on legislators to approve the necessary funding to make the freeze a reality and improve college access for Iowans.

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