New gift to fund long-term study of college retention

April 3, 2017

Mary and Daniel James want to help researchers find out what helps first-generation college students persist

By Ross Brenneman

Mary and Daniel James

Mary and Daniel James

A new gift to the USC Rossier School of Education will bolster research that seeks to understand how personalized learning models may help high school students succeed and persist in college.

A half-million dollar gift from Mary and Daniel James will allow USC Rossier professors to study the transition of students at USC Hybrid High School to college. The couple is particularly interested in the persistence of first-generation college students, who often enter higher education at a disadvantage.

“One of the things that we hope to learn is, what helps students? And where do they struggle?” said Mary James. “Maybe there are stumbling blocks we didn’t know were stumbling blocks.”

USC Hybrid High School, founded by USC Rossier in 2012, is overseen by the Ednovate charter management organization. The Ednovate model emphasizes personalized learning in combination with modern technology and a college-going culture. The model has already demonstrated early success, with 100 percent of the school’s 2016 graduating class getting accepted into four-year colleges.

Still untested is whether that model is enough to keep graduates in college.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, two out of every five matriculated U.S. students won’t graduate college within six years. And the persistence rate for first-generation college students is even worse. Eighty-five percent of USC Hybrid High’s students who graduated in 2016 qualified as first-generation college students.

James said that while college recruitment has taken notice of underprivileged populations, the “bigger challenge is getting them college-ready with the goal of college graduation.”

Fulfilling a mission

USC Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher said that the James gift will be an essential part of tying USC Hybrid High to college success, one of the main intentions behind the creation of Hybrid High.

“Mary and Daniel’s support and vision are allowing us to gather new data that will show in tangible ways how these students are succeeding, bringing us closer to fulfilling the promise of the Ednovate model,” Gallagher said.

The study will be led by Associate Professor of Clinical Education Shafiqa Ahmadi and Associate Professor of Education Darnell Cole, the co-directors of the recently launched Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice. The researchers will use surveys, focus groups and a case study to understand participants’ college-going behavior, the quality of their college experiences and why they are or are not able to persist to graduation.

The James gift will fund the first two years of the study, and USC Rossier is seeking funding for an additional three years of research, creating in total a five-year study.

Mary James, who is also on the USC Rossier Board of Councilors, was an early supporter of USC Hybrid High, a long-time mentor for first-generation college students and has been an active member in the Los Angeles charter community, serving on the board of directors for the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a K-12 charter.

Discussing why she and her husband were interested in this research, she pointed to Hybrid High’s unique connection to USC Rossier, and the potential of such a partnership to turn research into action.  The ultimate goal, James said, is to see whether the research findings on college retention can be valuable to teacher training as a whole—with USC Rossier being a possible test subject.

“We can learn from a student’s college experiences and translate this to teacher education and curriculum development,” James said. “It would be pretty exciting to close the loop there.”

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This article appeared in the spring/summer 2017 issue of USC Rossier Magazine.