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36 Intriguing Delawareans • Harry Williams

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As his family’s first college graduate, Harry Williams knows the struggles first-timers face. So when he became Delaware State University’s president in 2010, he stressed student support.

His “focus on student success and sustainability” is a major thrust of his goal to make it No. 1 among America’s 100 historically black universities. Three recent surveys place it No. 13 to 19.

“Seven years ago, we didn’t have any of this support,” he says, referring to software that creates individual development plans, personal counselors and a culture to build confidence, reduce frustration, encourage learning and connect students to all the university has to offer.

The concept is proving itself in retention (how many students enroll the next year) and graduation. In 2006, the freshmen retention rate was 64.1 percent; in 2015, it was 72.7 percent. The 2006 cohort’s four-year graduation rate was 15.4 percent; the 2012 cohort’s rate was 25.9 percent. The 2006 cohort’s six-year graduation rate was 33.1 percent; the 2010 cohort’s rate was 42.5 percent.

It’s also gaining monetary support: $2 million in grants from the Longwood Foundation for Project Aspire, for first-generation Delaware students; $2.6 million from the U.S. for Access to Success, for at-risk and underrepresented students; and $1.2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for Individual Development Plans, with the goal of spreading the concept nationwide.

As part of a university delegation to Seattle, junior Edgar Ortiz told Bill Gates he’s the first in his family to got to college and how important Williams’ efforts are. “I know a lot of people in my situation, and having more support will help.”

More support might come from President Donald Trump, who in February signed an executive order saying that the White House would make historically black college and universities “an absolute priority.” Williams, one of dozens of college leaders who met with Trump, hopes he will do more than talk: they asked for increased financial aid for students, greater access for federal research grants and $25 billion for scholarships, technology and infrastructure improvements.

Williams, 53, grew up in a low-income family in Greenville, South Carolina, and went to college via a track scholarship and the federal TRIO programs for low-income, first-generation college and disabled students. When Delaware State hired a company called Noel-Levitz to assess its enrollment program, Williams was the staffer sent in for the work. In 2008, Delaware State hired him as provost and vice president of academic affairs before promoting him to president.

Williams’ other desires include scaling up its Kirkwood Highway facility, transforming it into a hub for master’s degrees, professional programs and online learning. He has a doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis from East Tennessee State. Before that, he earned multiple degrees from Appalachian State University (a bachelor of science in communication broadcasting and a master of arts in educational media) and told its alumni magazine “We’re in the business of changing lives.”

Here’s how: First-time college students are family trailblazers, and the university should help clear their path. “Once you plant the seed in these young people, they’ll grow.” It might do more. “We need productive citizens who continue to uplift our country. A four-year degree is still the ticket to the middle class.”

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