Minh Duong Dinh was born to Vietnamese parents in the Netherlands, before the family moved to Cape Coral six years ago. His father works for a furniture company, his mother in a nail salon. But Dinh had a dream of being the first in his family to go to college and chose the University of South Florida.
“USF had like this nice balance of being just far enough to go out of the house, but also still close enough that I could still visit home every once in a while, because that was something that my parents would like,” said Dinh.
The 22-year-old didn’t want to put the burden on his parents to pay for college, and he also didn’t want to run up debt with student loans. So, like many lower-income students, Dinh turned to Pell Grants. That’s a federally-funded, need-based financial aid program that about 40 percent of the students on USF’s Tampa campus are on.
“I know that you can use student loans to afford school, but the Pell Grant does make it a lot easier, both financially but also mentally, knowing that you won’t be in that much crippling debt when you go to college," Dinh said.
In addition, USF offered him additional financial support that had the same eligibility requirements as Pell Grants – combined, his entire tuition was basically covered. Dinh called it "quite liberating" to protect his parents from having to pay for his education.
"I knew that they were willing to do that, but of course I wanted to keep the burden on them as little as possible," he said. "Knowing that the Pell Grant and other scholarships and grants were there, available to me, gave me a lot more confidence to go straight to USF as opposed to, for example, a community college at home, which would be a lot more cheaper, but it wouldn’t give you the same experience as going to a four-year university.”
And Dinh didn’t just attend USF – he was admitted to the Honors College, and this past May, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a minor in biomedical engineering – and he did it in four years.
Dinh isn’t a unique case: according to findings recently published by Third Way, a national think tank, USF is the top public university in Florida and the ninth best in the country at serving low-income students like him.
According to Paul Dosal, USF’s Vice President for Student Affairs and Student Success, the six-year graduation rate of Pell recipients from the class admitted in 2010 — the most recent data Third Way examined — was 68 percent. That figure is well above what a lot of other public universities with a high number (37 percent or more) of grant recipients.
"The national average (is) only 49% of Pell Grant recipients will graduate in six years," said Dosal. "That's not acceptable to us, (we) said, 'Why can't they succeed at higher rates?'"
In addition, USF's graduate rate for Pell recipients is one percent better than the 67 percent rate for USF students who didn’t receive a Pell Grant.
“That means we are one of only two public universities in Florida where low-income students graduated at a higher rate than the non-Pell recipients. It’s a great metric to hit and so very few universities can claim this,” said Dosal.
Another measurement Dosal singles out is that USF has eliminated the achievement gap between racial and ethnic minorities, with black and Hispanic students graduating at rates equal to or better than that of their white classmates.
Dosal credits USF’s success to one thing — a belief in every student, no matter their color, nationality or economic status.
“We’ve been trying to elevate the performance of all of our students. We’ve not targeted specific cohorts of students, we’ve not said, ‘Let’s do this program for Pell Grant students or minority students,’ we’re lifting everybody,” he said.
Dosal points to campus efforts both big and small, whether it’s the Student Support Services Program that helps about 200 low-income students a year, or the Library’s SMART Lab that offers assistance to students in all introductory-level math classes.
“It’s not designed for limited-income students or minority students, but minority students are passing at higher rates in those mathematics courses and that leads to success down the road,” said Dosal.
That includes learning opportunties beyond Tampa. Recent data shows that USF is the leading state among public universities, and is sixth nationally, in the number of Gilman Scholars. Thirty-two USF students received the national scholarship only available for Pell eligible students and will study aboard this summer.
“We want to have an impact, a positive impact on social mobility, it’s not just getting a degree, but what are they going to do with that degree?" Dosal said. "Are they going to get a job, are they going to find meaningful employment, are they going to enjoy all that education has to offer?”
Other schools are interested in finding out what USF is doing to help lower-income students succeed. In May, Dosal spoke at University of Alabama, which then sent a delegation to Tampa to see itfor themselves.
"We enjoy those conversations," Dosal said, "not just because they're fun, but we learn from them, we're sharing experiences and perfecting our practices."
And he called helping students the best reward he can get in his job.
“Given that I came from a low-income minority family in Tampa, to help similar students in the community who have similar backgrounds means everything to me," Dosal said. "I feel like I’m helping my community and serving the interests of Tampa and the state of Florida in doing this.”
As for Dinh, he’s still looking for a job — he's not sure if he wants to work in the pharmaceutical field or the petroleum industry. He also hopes whatever company hires him will help him go to graduate school.
But for now, he has a degree, and more importantly, no student debt. But what he's happiest about is his younger brother, who’s in high school and who wants to follow in his footsteps.
“So even before he went to high school, he already asked me about, ‘What do I need to do to get into college, what do I need to do to get, for example, the Pell Grant?’" Dinh said. "So he’s started a lot earlier than I did and I’m proud to see that.”