Meet Maria, Amarillo's Most Promising Student

Amarillo College raised completion rates from 19% to 48% by using a composite personal profile to better understand who the college should cater to.

At Amarillo College in Texas, “Maria” is a composite personal profile of the average student. Maria is a first-generation, part-time, female, Latina, and has substantial financial barriers. She works, on average, two part time jobs, is 27 years old, and raises 1.2 children. She was created to draw attention to the type of student the college should be designing its services to cater to. 

“…If we are going to be the economic saviors of our community,” said Russell Lowery-Hart, Amarillo’s president, “We have to understand who our community is, and we have to readdress ourselves to reflect our community,” during a presentation given at the 50th Annual ACCT Leadership Congress, now available as an “In the Know with ACCT” podcast. Amarillo recognized that their academic model served a student who was increasingly in the minority—recent high school graduates, students with ample free time. 

Supports for Maria are not all directly academic. Creating a concerted effort to, as Lowery-Hart says, “Love Maria to success,” establishes a personal connection among students, faculty and staff. Lowery-Hart identified that students could find the administration and institutional design to be confusing and cold. He wants to ensure that students and their families feel welcome a every point of interaction with the college. That could be in the bursar’s office, or in the classroom. 

An example of this ethos in practice is making sure all students receive their first grade directly from their professors—not online. This provides an opportunity for human contact. Lowery-Hart described a student, Linda, who excelled in high school mathematics but faltered on her first college-level exam. The exam required the use of a TI-84 calculator, which she didn’t have. She solved the problems in her head, not leaving enough time to even come close to finishing every question. Linda thought she wasn’t smart enough. After meeting with her professor, he asked Linda why she wasn’t using a TI-84. She didn’t know it was a calculator. She got a calculator and passed the class. Lowery-Hart credits that simple interaction to preventing her from dropping out, and eventually becoming an honors student. It’s an example of how making an effort to understand students’ perspectives—what they know and what they might not understand—can change lives. 

Overall, Amarillo uses a three-fold strategy to help students persist to graduation: Remove a life barrier, make use of expedited learning, and create a culture of caring. This plan, arrived at through employing Maria as a secret shopper, improved completion rates from 19% to 48% in over three years. Maria is smart, capable, and ambitious, she just needs to right supports to succeed. 

For more in-depth information about Maria, including in-depth detail about the process Amarillo College underwent to increase completion rates, check out part one of the two-part episode of In The Know that ACCT released this week. Part two will be released next week.

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