Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

May 14, 2018

For Students, The Right Advice Can Make All the Difference

By Allan Golston

Graduation Day is a day full of stories – stories about the challenges, the victories, the setbacks, and the support that students experience on their journey to a diploma. One common thread across these stories: good advice can make all the difference. Colleges and universities that are figuring this out are making an impact in the lives of students. Just ask the Miami Dade College (MDC) class of 2018.

Miami Dade has the single largest undergraduate enrollment of any college or university in the country (at just over 91,000), and reflects the makeup of today’s college students. It serves students from over 73 different countries who speak 67 different languages. More than half of MDC students are the first in their families to go to college and two-thirds are between the ages of 18-24. Most MDC students are working, raising families, and over 60 percent are enrolled part-time. For these students, the right support and advising can be the difference between falling off-track or getting to graduation.

I have visited MDC a few times in recent years, and have met with students to get a sense of their experiences and how their college has supported them on their journey to that graduation stage. During my conversations with students on a recent visit in April, I heard about their challenges and also how MDC truly lives its motto of “Students First.”

“The hardest part isn’t going to class and learning and studying. It’s learning to navigate college,” Joyce told me. Joyce spent high school working to help support her struggling family, and came to college confused by everything from FAFSA forms to the foreign language requirements for her major.

“A lot of people, when they come to college, they don’t know where to go,” said Joyce. “They don’t know they need to see an advisor to create a map.”

But the students I met at MDC had received the right guidance and at the right time.

Rudolph had trouble managing his full course load at first. He told me that without his advisor and mentor helping him adjust his course schedule and manage his time better, he’s not sure he would have made it to graduation. Other students had similar challenges they had to navigate with the help of a mentor and advisor.

Luis commuted by bus and metro an hour each way to attend honors college and study industrial design.

Isabel worked part-time as a bar manager, but her hours often looked more like full-time by the time she clocked out for the week.

Each student described their mentor or advisor as “a member of my own family.” And for first-generation students who don’t have someone in their families who has been through the college experience, the advisor/mentor relationship can be a critical resource.

Since joining the Completion By Design Initiative – a cohort of nine colleges setting out to increase student success and completion by adopting approaches to knock down common barriers that prevent students from getting their degrees – in 2012, MDC has added more than 35 pre-college and first-year advisors. This is on top of a robust program that includes more than 300 trained, volunteer faculty members serving as mentors.

While they’d be the first to tell you they still have more work to do, by focusing on solutions like advising and other student supports over the past 10 years, MDC has increased the number of students completing a program by 52 percent.

I hope higher ed leaders and policymakers look to Miami Dade as an example of what supporting today’s college students can look like. I’m sure if they asked for it, they’d receive some great advice. They can also look to other institutions that have made improving student advising a priority – institutions like Georgia State University and Oregon State University.

I was honored to give the commencement address last week at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson and Hialeah Campuses, and the advice I gave the graduating class of 2018 was this: the resilience those students had shown in getting to graduation – students like Joyce, Rudolph, Luis, and Isabelle – and hundreds of their classmates, was exactly what they needed to succeed in an ever-changing world. Now it’s time for them to write their own stories. I was honored to be there with them to celebrate their achievements, and I look forward to the impact they’ll make in their communities and in our country.

Congratulations to the class of 2018!

Allan C. Golston, president of the United States Program, leads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to advance educational opportunity and student achievement in the United States.