In the fall of 2021, Dr. Kimberly Cunningham, the then-director of the Center for Academic Excellence, opened an email from the Department of Education that she had to reread several times to make sure it was real. She learned that Baptist Health Sciences University earned a $4.25 million grant from the Department of Education under the Predominantly Black Institutions (PBI) Competitive Grant Program. This is the largest grant in Baptist University’s history.
With the grant, Dr. Cunningham, now the Dean of Student Success, will establish the Blue Healer Student Success Center (BHSSC). She’ll start by hiring up to six academic success coaches, an internship coordinator, a career development coordinator and a life coach.
“We are meeting a real unmet need with the help of these grants,” said Dr. Cunningham. “The Blue Healer Student Success Center is a first of its kind at the Baptist University, providing wraparound support for the academic and wellness needs of all students.”
Students who are identified early as at-risk for academic struggles or dropping out will be assigned an academic coach. According to Education Data Initiative, 30% of students drop out during their first year of higher education. In a time when health care providers of all kinds are in high demand, Dr. Cunningham wanted to find a way to stop the attrition.
“We want to hire a diverse group of success coaches for the BHSSC, to be strategic in who we bring in,” said Dr. Cunningham. “We are looking for passionate people who are excited to help our students succeed.”
All students at the university will have access to the BHSSC, academic success coaches and professional tutoring plans. Coaches will focus on teaching students how to learn, with the goal of ultimately improving student retention rates.
“Students can learn time management, note-taking, study skills, really how to learn and understand material and information,” said Dr. Cunningham.
During the 2020-2021 school year, Baptist University offered a pilot program with academic success coaches for more than 230 first-year students. Coaches were a go-to resource for students for all things Baptist University, which was especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic with both remote and in-person learning. Students in the program reported feeling more connected to the school and more comfortable in their new setting.
“Being able to pay it forward means the world to me,” explained Dr. Cunningham, who has worked in education her entire career. “I was a first-generation college student, too. Someone out there helped me, and I feel a big calling to help underrepresented students.”
The PBI Formula Grant and the PBI Competitive Grant will provide $850,000 a year during the next five years, until the end of the 2025-2026 school year. To keep the funding coming throughout the five-year grant period, Baptist University will report quarterly metrics to the Department of Education, indicating how the funds are used.
Recipients of the grant must have an enrollment of at least 40% Black students with at least 1,000 undergraduate students total. The school must have at least 50% low-income or first-generation college students as defined by the Department of Education. Lastly, the school must have 50% or more undergraduate students enrolled in a program leading to a bachelor’s or associate degree.
“This is an exciting time for us,” said Dr. Betty Sue McGarvey, president of Baptist University. “I am so grateful to Dr. Cunningham and her team for securing the grants for our students and ultimately our communities.”