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  The number of minority students enrolled at St. Petersburg College has grown significantly in the past year — at rates much greater than those of white students.

The number of African-American students enrolled at the college in the spring term that began Jan. 10 increased by almost 27 percent from the spring 2010 term.

 The number of Hispanic students grew by 20.5 percent over the same period.

 This compares to a growth of 3.4 percent among white students. Overall enrollment for the same period increased 8.6 percent.

Minority students now represent about a quarter of all St. Petersburg College students.

About 85 percent of all students who were enrolled in the fall term returned for the spring. Minority students returned at or above that rate.

 “The college has worked hard to attract and keep minority students, and to encourage their academic success,” President Bill Law said. “This is an indication that those efforts are paying dividends.”

 Tonjua Williams, Associate Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, said the focus is on the student experience and the feeling that students do better when they feel connected to the college and its support services.

“If the student experience is positive and they are actively engaged in their learning, they are more likely to achieve their goals,” she said.

Patrick Rinard, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management, said the college has instituted a number of programs over the years that have been designed to encourage students to enroll and then finish the academic programs they have started. The new numbers, he said, indicate that those programs have been working.

“We are communicating with students throughout the term, encouraging them to finish,” Rinard said. “We offer a variety of services — tutoring and support services, for example — and we encourage the students to take advantage of them. It is a collective effort from everyone at the college to help students finish what they start.”

 SPC and other schools have worked for years to attract higher numbers of non-white students. Colleges throughout the country face the same challenge of keeping students enrolled through graduation.

SPC has a long record of special efforts to keep students in school through graduation.  It founded Women on the Way many years ago as a way of encouraging women to seek and complete college degrees. That effort has been so successful that the college recently founded Men Achieving Excellence (MAX), an effort aimed at boosting male enrollment.

A predecessor to MAX was Brother to Brother, an organization designed for black male students. Dedrick Woodard, who works for the college in the computer lab at the Midtown Center, belonged to Brother to Brother when he was working on his associate degree several years ago. He found it helpful to his academic success.

 “One thing I noticed was when students became aware of the resources and they felt comfortable about going there, they did better,” Woodard said. “They had an awareness that the program was for them. I know I realized that. Brother to Brother let me know that for sure. There was a room set aside for me – it was my special place to come and study or print things out. It altered my reality of the college experience.”

Student retention through graduation is a problem that has gained attention at the highest levels. Last year, President Obama set an ambitious goal for the country: to have the highest college graduate rates in the world by 2020. Currently, the U.S. is ranked seventh among adults 18 to 34 who are enrolled in college. Improving those numbers is difficult if significant segments have retention rates that lag behind the average.

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