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How did Boise State improve its graduation rate by 39%? (Hint: Do the math)

In this visit with Morning Edition, Dr. Marlene Tromp talks about graduation rates, greater outreach to rural Idaho, basketball and the university's award-winning Math Learning Center.
Boise state University
In this visit with Morning Edition, Dr. Marlene Tromp talks about graduation rates, greater outreach to rural Idaho, basketball and the university's award-winning Math Learning Center.

When Boise State President Dr. Marlene Tromp stands before the Idaho legislature’s budget writing committee, she’ll no doubt point to the university’s most important metric: its graduation rate.

“We've broken records like crazy. We've increased our graduation rate - our four-year graduation rate - in the last five years,” said Tromp, “It’s a big deal to increase your graduation rate by about a percent-and-a-half. We've increased our four-year graduation rate by 39%. It's almost staggering.”

There are a number of reasons for that success, and Tromp dives into many of them as part of this conversation with Morning Edition host George Prentice. They also talk about building and sustaining a bridge between Boise State University and rural Idaho, plus the Broncos recent success on the hardcourt as they anticipate March Madness.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. We are fortunate to spend some time this morning with Boise State President Dr. Marlene Tromp on what will be a very busy couple of weeks for the president. Dr. Tromp, welcome back to the program.

DR. MARLENE TROMP: Thank you so much. I'm so happy to be here.

PRENTICE: As a layperson, I do not envy anyone who has to stand before the Idaho Legislature's budget writing committee. But over the next week or two….well, this is a very critical time. We've been watching some of these hearings. The format is different in that there's not a lot of time to talk about the bigger budget picture. Instead, it will be a lot of questions coming from all directions on almost anything. How do you prepare for something like that?

TROMP: You know, my entire leadership team has really been focused on making sure that we can answer the kinds of questions we think that members of our legislature are going to have. And the exciting part of the process has been putting together the data because we're so proud of what we've accomplished over the last few years of this university. And so, when you put together that data, you get to see the big picture of the kinds of incredible things that people are doing and the kinds of incredible outcomes that our students are having…and our faculty are having. And that's really thrilling. We've broken records like crazy. We've increased our graduation rate - our four-year graduation rate - in the last five years. Now, a big deal is to increase your graduation rate by about a percent and a half. We've increased our four-year graduation rate by 39%. It's almost staggering.

PRENTICE: In what amount of time?

TROMP: Five years.

PRENTICE: Do you have a short answer for how you did that?

TROMP: Yes. Well, it was a very intentional, dedicated process where we asked the questions, “How do we really ensure that our students are retained and they're academically successful? How do we support them?” And we've won two national awards this year alone for our Math Learning Center.

PRENTICE: Let's go there. When I took math, specifically advanced algebra in college, I had no idea how much math would be a part of my professional life… and is to this day. That said, some of the best students on the planet are terrified of math. I've heard a little bit about this center. So, what do you tell a lay person about this?

TROMP: Well, it's very exciting. So, I'll tell you a little bit about what it does and then I'll tell you about the awards. So, you're right. There are two things that students generally are afraid of: math and poetry. And,people do math all the time, but they don't think about it in that way. And a math class feels intimidating. It's like learning a foreign language. And so, our Math Learning Center is designed to help people develop a sense of self efficacy in math, to develop confidence to do math, and to understand that they actually do have what it takes to complete a math class. So, in all of those gateway math classes, you can get support through the Math Learning Center. And what we found through the research is the students aren't just successful in that class; they are just as successful as students who are stellar in math in their next math class. So, they're not just able to succeed in the first gateway class that they take; they're able to succeed in the next math class.

PRENTICE: How do students get into… or walk through the doors of that center? Are they referred there, or does the center identify them somehow?

TROMP: Any student who's interested can be engaged. We send our students information on it. And we want to make sure anyone feels welcome to get that support. Even if you are a stellar student in math, the students who take it up most are those students who feel anxious and underprepared.

PRENTICE: It's difficult to ask for help, at any age.

TROMP: It is. And what we've done with both our writing center and our math learning center is help people understand this is about your success, and anyone can use this help, and that helps them understand that if they're leaning in with their developing is their own talents. It's not somebody trying to fix something for them, it's to help them get better. And that's part of they learn things in the math learning center or in the writing center that are going to help them be better students in any class.

PRENTICE: And you've picked up a couple of national awards.

TROMP: Yes we did. So, we earned the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities Beacon Award, which is a National Student Success Award, and we earned the American Public and land grant universities. National Award for Student Success, and the projects that were competing against us were these amazing programs. But they were so thunderstruck by our increase in math success and by our increased graduation rate.

PRENTICE: And those dots connect back to the graduation rate?

TROMP: Absolutely. Because if you can help people be academically successful in math. Yeah. And that's teaching them how to be better students. They're far more likely to be successful completing that degree. And so, we're watching our students’ success rates just escalate. So, our student outcomes are one of the outcomes we're very proud of. We've broken a philanthropy record for the last several years here. So we're watching people get so excited about what's happening at Boise State that they want to invest. And that's powerful. And for me, one of my primary goals. You may remember, George, that when I came and we had my inauguration, I had a dinner that was designed to raise money for our True Blue Presidential Scholarship. We've now endowed that scholarship and we've raised millions of dollars. And my goal is that no Idaho student, by the end of our comprehensive fundraising campaign, will have unmet financial need.

PRENTICE: And you're seeing more students from communities, the smallest and most rural communities across the state.

TROMP: Two years ago, after the pandemic, we saw the State of Idaho, just like every state in the country, saw a dramatic decline in the number of rural students who were going on to college. And so, we made a concerted effort to increase our number of Idaho students. The year after that, we grew our Idaho students by 20% in one year, the next year, another seven on top of that. And this year we're on track for more than five again. So, we've been able to really grow our Idaho students, and we have special programs that are reaching out into those rural communities to educate some students in place, and then that excites other students in those communities to come on down to Boise.

PRENTICE: What a different way of looking at diversity... Idaho's diversity.

TROMP: That's exactly right. Yeah. And so, for us, one of those primary factors is students who are first generation students who come from rural communities, because that's one of the most underrepresented groups of students in college. And one of the ways that students are now, we're now seeing a change in the representation in amongst college students is we're seeing a reduction in the number of young men going to college, and that's nationally true. So, we've targeted some programs to recruit young men to come to college. And we're having a 2% increase of men this year.

PRENTICE: This broadcast covers the planet every morning and on some days are better than others. Some days are okay, some days are challenging. But I've been thinking about solution-based education and our next, if not our last, best hope as far as addressing or facing some of the world's challenges. Can I ask you just to talk about that for just a moment? Because the world is a difficult place right now.

TROMP: Do you know what I say at every commencement? I say to the students, we have left you with so many problems to solve, and your education is going to make such an impact on you taking on these challenges. And I see students that inspire me every single day. You know, being on this campus gives me an opportunity to taste that hope every day. And we have  our student body president, for example, right now, uh, Chan Sheen, she's an amazing young woman from eastern Idaho, uh, grew up here, came on to get her engineering degree here. And she's this incredibly brilliant, talented young woman. She's won a Truman Scholarship. And what she wants to do is take for that Truman scholarship, take her knowledge in engineering and bring it to rural communities to make people's lives better in those communities. She doesn't want to run off and go make her fortune someplace far away from home. She wants to change the lives of people like those she grew up with, and that that kind of commitment to people and to humanity and to the betterment of the world. That's what makes me want to stay in higher education.

PRENTICE: I've got just a couple minutes left. We're a couple of days away from March and all the "Madness" that it brings. So, I have to ask you about how wonderful this season has been for the Boise State women's basketball team and the men's basketball team. And as they eye March... and all of the success that could be out there for them... we've talked about this before: Student Athlete. Student before athlete.

TROMP: Absolutely. In fact, do you know that we are in the top 5% of the NCAA in academic progress and student success? Nice. So, I did not know that Boise State has a proud tradition of having student athletes that excel academically and who go out in the world and have wonderful careers in the wake of their student athlete experience and those young people on the fields of competition. You know, that's one of the things I love about our athletics programs is that it really matches the character of the university. Our athletics program is this can do blue collar work ethic, as you've always heard. It described creative, hardworking, innovative, scrappy programs. And and I remember when I came here in 2019 and we had, oh, I don't know, maybe 4 or 5000 people in Extra-mile arena when we'd play a basketball game. Right. And now I go to those games and they are sold out.  And we see so many more people at those women's games, and we have these phenomenal teams. And the Mountain West is on fire this year.

PRENTICE: It's a great basketball conference. Well great good luck to them and to you, and good luck over the next couple of weeks at the Capitol. And Dr. Marlene Tromp, thanks for giving us some time this morning.

TROMP: Thank you so much for letting me be here to talk with you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice@georgepren

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