Thurgood Marshall College Fund collaborates with Delaware State to reduce college dropout rates

With the first cohort of 60 students, the university has so far achieved success.

Delaware State University

Delaware State University's campus. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Approximately 40 million students attended American colleges but never graduated.

That’s concerning for leaders at Delaware State University in Dover, where they’re looking for strategies to reduce the dropout rate.

To address the issue, DSU will team up with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to create a joint center to help students develop non-traditional, easy paths to complete their college education, including online classes.

“They were almost at the finish line,” said Terry Jeffries, the assistant dean for the School of Graduate, Adult, and Extended Studies at Del. State.

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“Those individuals stopped, many were in good academic standing, but for whatever reason, life happened, something happened that interrupted their college experience,” she said. “We were able to recruit students back to the university and help them to actually complete their baccalaureate degree.”

The center will house research and compile data gathered in DSU’s three-year pilot program for near-completers and adult learners. It will also support other HBCUs in their efforts to recruit adult learners who have some college experience but have not completed their degree.

“Since HBCUs serve a more diverse group of students, we have a collective knowledge about how to support first-generation students, adult learners, and students whose journey to graduation is different from what the education system considers to be a traditional student,” said TMCF President & CEO Harry Williams. Williams is very familiar with Del. State, he was university president from 2010 to 2017.

“The secret is that HBCUs have always served these students. This Joint Center for HBCU Non-Traditional Completion will bring together best practices and provide consultative services from within the HBCU community — to support other HBCUs,” Williams said.

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With the initial funding in 2020 from the Kresge Foundation and Ascendium, DSU looked at their drop-outs with 90 credits or more, and decided to recruit those individuals back to the institution.

For DSU, the emphasis on retention and recruitment ended up having a higher impact.

“As of May, we probably had close to 60 students that ultimately came back,” Jeffries said. “They came to the university and have finished their bachelor’s degree with Delaware State and have now improved their social mobility and are gainfully employed.”

Hundreds of students remain in the program after the 60 graduates.

Those students are enrolled in DSU’s online or in-person eight-week accelerated courses, which Jeffries hopes will remove the obstacles that caused them to drop out in the first place.

“There was a barrier that prevented them from completing in the beginning. There was a reason why they left. They were traditional students and had to return home for a number of reasons,” she said. “[The program is] providing them with access and taking away the barrier of having to uproot and be able to still complete their program.”

With the first cohort of 60 students, the university has so far achieved success. It’s now working to share that knowledge and better assist other universities.

“As a network of schools, HBCUs must support each other with lessons learned and innovative strategies,” said DSU President Tony Allen. “Many HBCU students in the past have stopped out of college, yet consider themselves part of the HBCU community. Our goal is to help them get across the finish line and earn their degrees, so that they can increase their earning potential and advance in their careers.”

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