Minh Duong Dinh, known as Duong around the University of South Florida’s main campus, received one of 7,000+ degrees bestowed by the Tampa university this May. At a time when many take on huge loans for the opportunity, he made it through with very little debt. It is also notable that he is the first in his family to attend college.
Thanks in part to the federal Pell Grant program, the Honors College student graduated with a Bachelor’s in Science degree in Chemical Engineering, with a minor in Biomedical Engineering.
“USF has a lot of resources for students, to help students succeed on the first try,” says Dinh, who moved from Cape Coral to Tampa to attend USF in fall 2014.
Bright Futures scholarships are a big boon to those who qualify, like Dinh, yet making it to graduation day is not always easy. Statistically, only 67 percent of non-Pell students make it, according to the Washington, D.C., think tank, Third Way. And for Pell Grant recipients nationwide, it’s even harder.
Most four-year colleges don’t do a very good job of helping Pell students, Third Way says. But USF is attracting national attention as a place where minorities and students from low- to middle-income families have a greater chance of success.
USF’s main campus ranked ninth in the top 10 “high quality” Pell-serving public universities nationwide, in Third Way’s newly-issued report. That is after seven University of California campuses, for graduating larger percentages of Pell Grant recipients.
USF graduated 68 percent, or 1,242 of its 1,824 recipients, while UCLA graduated 88 percent. That is one percent higher than the national average for non-Pell students and 19 points higher than the Pell national average of 49 percent.
The numbers include first-time, full-time Pell students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees (at the institutions they enrolled in) within six years. Calculations were based on students who entered college in 2010.
High-quality institutions serve a large number of Pell students, in USF’s case 41 percent, and help them graduate at least half of the time. The federal government pumps some $30 billion into the program annually to increase access to higher education -- and the money does not need to be repaid.
In December, Education Trust recognized USF as the top public university in the nation for Latino success -- and the fourth top university overall. The graduation rate for whites was 65.5 percent in 2013, 2014 and 2015, 0.6 percent less than the Latino rate of 66.2 percent. In March 2017, the Education Trust rated USF tops in Florida and sixth in the nation for its graduation completion rate among blacks, with a rate of 63.7 percent for 2012, 2013 and 2014. The national average was 40.9 percent.
Helping students succeed at USF is part of Dr. Paul Dosal’s job description. As Vice President for Student Affairs and Student Success, he oversees the university’s mission to help students when the inevitable obstacles to graduation occur -- whether it’s a personal problem, an academic challenge, or a financial hardship.
“My assignment is to promote the success of all of our undergraduate students,” he says.
At the core of his efforts is the belief that every student admitted to USF can graduate. “We treat them all the same,” he says. “We think they all have what it takes to earn the degree of their choice in a timely way. We approach our effort in a way that’s positive.”
Help comes in different forms. It can be through the Bull 2 Bull Financial Education Program, which helps them regulate finances, or through tutoring, or through coaches that help them with homesickness, stress or a romantic loss. From the freshman year, when they complete an online survey that helps put them on a career path, to the Don’t Stop, Don’t Drop! program that pays an outstanding library fine keeping a student from graduating, the Student Success program steps in to resolve what otherwise might be an unresolvable problem.
“It’s a small investment from our perspective and it has a powerful impact,” Dosal says of the emergency funding program.
While it doesn’t cover more extensive financial problems like a shortage of money to pay the last semester’s tuition, other help is available. “If a student appears to be in financial distress,” he says, “we’re also willing to step in and help out.”
Some of the ways USF assists student achievement are unusual and innovative. It is particularly committed to students that have “high ability” and “high need,” he explains.
Even with a Bright Futures scholarship, there still are other fees and book costs. “We can cover those students so they can get through here tuition-free,” he says.
In general, USF is committed to diversity, as the numbers attest. “We believe that our students will benefit from a diverse campus climate,” he says. “We recognize the educational benefits of diversity first and foremost. In order to prepare our students to compete and succeed ... our campus should look like the world.”
In fall 2017, 48.4 percent of undergraduate students on the main campus were white, compared with 20.8 percent Hispanic and 10.4 percent black. Some 6.3 percent of the 30,883 students were non-residents.
Dinh calls USF’s ranking a “remarkable achievement.” “I found USF to be really accommodating,” says the European-born Dinh, who is of Vietnamese descent. “I really felt, still feel at home at USF.”
After USF offered him the best financial aid package, academic advisors helped keep him on track. He also received support from professional organizations on campus, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers.
So what’s next for the graduate? Job hunting. He’s in Tampa, but he’s willing to relocate for an opportunity in the field of chemical engineering. At some point, he plans to return to school to earn a master’s degree.
As a college graduate, the 22-year-old has taken a big step away from the family’s traditional careers in manual labor. And he offers encouragement to his 14-year-old brother John, who’s already asking what courses can prepare him for college.
“He seems to be inclined to do engineering,” Dinh says. “What I did definitely made an impact.”