This spring at St. Petersburg College, something surprising happened. Nearly 60 percent of black male students attending college for the first time successfully completed their courses — up from 42 percent the previous year.
For Hispanic male students new to college, the success rate jumped from 53 percent to nearly 70 percent.
Colleges have long struggled to reach men of color, who typically post the lowest graduation rates. But here were these double-digit jumps. And overall, the course success rate — the proportion of grades earned that are a "C" or above — increased nearly 7 percent in just one year, to 66.5 percent for first-time college students.
It was the highest rate for new students in at least six years.
In a first last fall, the school held an orientation for first-time college students, where they could register for courses. They assigned students individual advisers, who held mandatory sessions. They made sure teachers alerted advisers if students weren't doing well. They opened an online center where students could plan their courses beyond that semester. They expanded tutoring services.
In focus groups with students, SPC learned that black male students crave more engagement from faculty and staff.
"We have transitioned ourselves to a student-centered college. We have changed," says Tonjua Williams, the vice president for academic and student affairs.
Which begs a question with a much more complicated answer: Why wasn't any of this happening before?
"I think the attention to good practice, to fully executed good practice, had waned," says Bill Law, president of SPC since 2010. "When I got here, they said every new student goes through orientation. It's online. I don't know what the record is for how fast you can click through something, since there's no right or wrong answers, but that's what was sufficing for orientation. That's not a good practice."
Williams offered a possible explanation: "Sometimes, when you're in it for a while, you don't see it's a problem."
She believes fresh eyes in the form of Law helped cause the shift.
"When he left (Tallahassee Community College), what they named for him was the building for student success," said former SPC trustee Ken Burke. "I'm thinking, 'Hmm, that's a good sign.' "
Burke, the clerk of the Circuit Court in Pinellas County and a trustee from 1999 to 2012, says the college didn't always have the technology for its new online program, and the tutoring expansion required funding.
But a special orientation and hands-on advising are "a no-brainer," Burke says.
An expansion of the college's tutoring centers is making sure students are getting help beginning in the first few weeks of classes. Before, Law says they were "the last stop before you're out the door, the triage center."
"I try not to be judgmental about the people who went before me. They solved other problems. They did some other things," he says.
Other area community colleges have focused efforts on making sure first-time college students understand, in essence, what it means to be in school.
Pasco-Hernando Community College has "always" held an orientation for students, but around 2008 began targeting first-time college students with five-hour sessions dubbed "Get Acquainted Day," says Bob Bade, associate dean of student activities and engagement.
The college also stations staff and faculty at welcome booths on the first day of classes. "That first day is very scary for students," says Bob Bade, associate dean of student activities and engagement. "They'd never admit it, of course."
Hillsborough Community College holds an orientation for first-time college students "geared for them to survive that first semester," says Carlos Soto, the president of the Brandon campus. "They get information on what's available — resources and that kind of thing."
For about seven years, the college has had students meet with advisers to chart out every class they're going to take at HCC. "What we're finding out," Soto says, "is we're getting a heck of a lot better prepared students."
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).