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Jordyn Schroeder, a student at University of Maryland, instructs the students during PEOPLE, a UW college prep program, at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery in 2014. An evaluation found shortcomings in the program.

Participants in one of UW-Madison’s most well-known outreach programs for disadvantaged students of color graduate from the university at lower rates than other low-income and minority students, according to an evaluation that also found the program has been hampered by a lack of data and coordination.

Campus officials say they are now mulling changes to the Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, or PEOPLE program, in hopes of better serving students.

The Wisconsin State Journal obtained the evaluation Monday; after inquiries from the newspaper, UW-Madison officials released the report more broadly Thursday.

The PEOPLE program, which started in 1999, aims to help prepare minority students and those from low-income households for college, and partners with schools in the Madison and Milwaukee areas, as well as the Menominee Indian School District. It is one of several UW-Madison efforts to make its student body more diverse.

Participants take part in programs to prepare them for college, including one in which high school students spend part of the summer living in UW-Madison dorms. Those who earn admission to UW-Madison receive a full tuition scholarship.

But an evaluation of PEOPLE, written by the Oregon research firm Education Northwest, found several shortcomings in the program:

  • Graduation rates for low-income students and students as a whole at UW-Madison have risen over the past five years, but they have fallen for PEOPLE participants.
  • Although UW-Madison pays $3.5 million to $4 million for the PEOPLE program each year, fewer than half of its participants wind up enrolling at the campus.
  • PEOPLE, which comprises five programs across the state, lacks centralized organization and has not used data to inform its decision-making.
  • Its services are not offered consistently across the state, so while students in some parts of Wisconsin can enter programs as early as elementary school, those in Milwaukee don’t have access to them until the summer before 10th grade.

UW-Madison Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Patrick Sims, who oversees PEOPLE, said many of the problems are the result of the program trying to “be everything to everyone.”

Officials have not yet decided on changes to PEOPLE in light of the evaluation, the first in its 16-year history, although Sims said they will be aimed at providing programs that have a more significant impact on students.

With programs across UW-Madison cutting their budgets amid reduced state funding, however, Sims warned changes could force PEOPLE to reduce the programs it offers in other areas.

“What pieces do we cut back on? We don’t have the answers to that,” Sims said. “We’re still wrapping our heads around the content that’s in the report.”

Graduation rates declining

In 2005, 73 percent of PEOPLE participants who enrolled at UW-Madison as freshmen graduated within six years. That’s a lower graduation rate than among all UW-Madison students (82 percent), but it was higher than the rate for minorities who received the federal Pell grant for low-income students (63 percent) and that of first-generation college students who received Pell (71 percent).

But over the next five years, as graduation rates rose for students in those other categories, that of PEOPLE’s freshman classes fell.

In 2009, 63 percent of PEOPLE scholars graduated in six years, compared to 70 percent of minority Pell recipients, 79 percent of first-generation Pell recipients and 85 percent of all UW-Madison students.

Sims said it’s not clear what caused the gap in graduation rates, though he noted that PEOPLE participants often come from disadvantaged schools.

“You can be admitted to the institution, but there is a wide range of preparation,” he said.

UW-Madison has efforts underway to improve graduation rates at several programs under Sims’ Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement, but he said there are no plans for new efforts specifically aimed at boosting PEOPLE participants’ graduation rates.

Report faults program’s organization

The report’s authors criticized PEOPLE’s organization, saying it lagged in collecting and using data, limiting its ability “to learn from experience and adapt its programming and services over time.”

Before the evaluation was finished, Sims said, his division had already hired a new director of data management with the goal of better using data to measure programs and make improvements.

Education Northwest also noted that while PEOPLE is based at and funded by UW-Madison, between 2002 and 2014 only about 46 percent of participants in its program for high school students enrolled at the university on average.

Most of the rest went to another University of Wisconsin System school or to a college outside the System; less than 10 percent said they weren’t planning to attend college.

Sims said he did not consider that a problem because PEOPLE works to prepare students for college, and is not solely aimed at bringing them to Madison.

Limited access in Milwaukee

The report found problems with how the program reaches students before they’re considering colleges as well.

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PEOPLE administers a range of programs for different groups of students, not all of which are available across the state. It offers after-school help to elementary schoolers, but just on Madison’s North Side; only students in the Madison area and Menominee can take part in middle school programs.

So while PEOPLE was created to benefit Milwaukee-area students and help bring them to UW-Madison, the soonest such a student can enroll in one of its programs is during the summer between their freshman and sophomore years in high school.

That could be too late for some students, said former UW-Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, who researches issues affecting low-income college students and served on a committee that organized the PEOPLE evaluation.

“What we know about preparation for college is that the earlier you get to the students the more effective it is,” Goldrick-Rab said. “There are definitely people we’re missing.”

Funding limits programs

Sims said he would like to see PEOPLE help Milwaukee students earlier in their lives, such as through a program to reach them between seventh and eighth grades so they are better prepared to succeed in high school.

But while a UW-Madison spokeswoman said PEOPLE is not considering leaving any cities, Sims said money to add programs in Milwaukee would likely have to come from other areas.

“That is going to require additional resources, so as something else gets put on the table, something else is going to get taken off,” he said.

With UW-Madison’s funding for PEOPLE limited, Sims said he is working to find private or federal sources of money for the program.

But Goldrick-Rab said improving it won’t be as simple as increasing the budget.

PEOPLE is facing the kinds of problems that college-preparation programs for low-income students often face — more professional development for the staff members who manage it, and help from the university to analyze and act on data could also be necessary.

In general, she said, UW-Madison “needs to pay a lot more attention to the program.”

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