Report Highlights Southeast for Strategies to Boost Low-Income and Black Student Success


Southeast Missouri State University is among five Missouri universities highlighted in the “Degrees with Less Debt: Postsecondary Strategies that Enhance Low-Income and Black Student Success” report released today by St. Louis Graduates.

The report identifies strategies employed at colleges and universities attended by St. Louis area students to support low-income and Black students to graduation with less debt. In addition to Southeast, other highlighted universities are McKendree University (Lebanon, Illinois); University of Central Missouri (Warrensburg, Missouri); the University of Missouri-St. Louis (St. Louis Missouri); and Webster University (St. Louis, Missouri).

Southeast also was among the five institutions identified in the Degrees with Less Debt report released by St. Louis Graduates in 2017.

“Southeast Missouri State University is extremely pleased to be recognized for our efforts to enhance the success of our low income and Black students,” said Dr. Carlos Vargas, president of Southeast Missouri State University. “I would especially like to acknowledge Trent Ball, assistant vice president for academic diversity and outreach at Southeast, and his staff for their continued efforts toward making opportunity a tangible reality for each and every student that our Academic Support Centers touch.”

St. Louis Graduates commissioned the report which is authored by Dr. Janet Holt, professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE). St. Louis Graduates is a collaborative network of K-12 and higher education, youth serving non-profit organizations, business and philanthropy committed to eliminating equity gaps in postsecondary educational attainment for low-income and Black students. St. Louis Graduates is a component fund of St. Louis Community Foundation.

The five institutions, including Southeast, were identified after university administrators responsible for overseeing academic support and financial aid at each of the institutions as well as university leadership were interviewed. Ball coordinated the Degrees with Less Debt project at Southeast.

One student focus group from each institution, representing low-income and Black students, was also selected and interviewed. From the themes that emerged from the interviews, high-level institutional strategies were identified that are reducing inequities based on race and class and helping students graduate with less debt. The report also identifies areas in which students and administrators had differing views.

The report highlighted Southeast’s multi-faced approach to serving more students with institutional scholarships, noting that 70% of Southeast’s student population now is awarded a scholarship compared to 30% previously. Southeast also has made other changes designed to increase retention, including adopting its new Copper Dome Scholarship and its new Will To Do Scholarship. The Copper Dome Scholarship program is designed to offset increasing college costs and reduce student loans by increasing the scholarship amount each year beyond the rate of tuition increases. The Copper Dome Scholarship makes college affordable and incentivizes students to continue to succeed, knowing the award will increase yearly, as long as they continue to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA.

The Will To Do Award makes higher education more affordable and accessible throughout the state. This need-based scholarship fills the gap in eligible Pell students’ unmet tuition and general fees beginning this fall. Will To Do Award recipients pay $0 in tuition and general fees to attend Southeast. The new scholarship underscores Southeast’s commitment to providing financial support to students who need it most while also boosting efforts to support Missouri’s college completion goals.

“There is a growing achievement gap on college campuses and right here in Missouri. We recognize the urgency in assisting our most financially at-risk students and are allocating our resources to better provide access to higher education in this area,” Vargas said.

He continued, “Black and low-income students sometimes fall behind in achieving the financial security that comes with a college degree, as well as the related health benefits and personal satisfaction of completing an important personal goal. Because two-thirds of all jobs require a postsecondary degree or certificate, it is incumbent upon us and fellow universities to transform and create higher education systems that embrace and support these students, and ensure they complete their degree to improve their long-term personal and career success.”

The report identifies four high-level institutional strategies: 1) It’s All About Affordability, 2) Leadership  and Advocacy Across the Institution, 3) Completion Curriculum and Supports, and 4) Essential Needs for  a Changing Student Body.

According to the report, the five institutions highlighted effectively support low-income students and Black students with a focus on affordability, including need-based financial aid and financial aid advising to help students make informed decisions about debt. The report also focused on the need for institutional leadership committed to equity; proactive academic supports; and critical services, including mental health.

Interviews conducted for the report indicate that significant additional work remains to be done for students, particularly Black students, to feel safe and supported in college.

Simultaneous with the release of the 2020 Degrees with Less Debt” report, a new video series titled “Degrees with Less Debt” is being launched that will focus on the barriers facing low-income and Black students and what colleges and universities can to create a higher education system that supports these students. Interviews with administrators and students from each of the five institutions highlighted in the report, as well as community partners, will be featured. Sonia Rucker, assistant to the president for equity and diversity and dean of students, and Southeast student Charles Blackmon are among those appearing in the video.  The first video is available at