PEOPLE program banquet

UW-Madison officials honored participants in their PEOPLE pre-college program at a banquet on Friday.

UW-Madison officials say the graduation rates of students from one of the university’s best-known outreach programs are poised to rise in the coming years, after a critical evaluation found participants in the pre-college program have been less likely than their peers to finish school.

The leaders of the Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, or PEOPLE program, also say they’re considering changes to better serve participants in Milwaukee.

“We’re confident we’re heading in the right direction,” said Patrick Sims, a PEOPLE administrator and UW-Madison’s vice provost for diversity and climate.

University officials honored program participants and graduates at a banquet on Friday, noting that 92 students — the most in the program’s history — will enter UW-Madison as freshmen later this month.

PEOPLE was founded in 1999 to prepare minority students and those from low-income families for college while also attracting them to UW-Madison.

A research firm’s evaluation of the program, released in May, criticized shortcomings in PEOPLE’s organization and lagging graduation rates.

Six-year graduation rates for PEOPLE participants who entered the university between 2005 and 2009 declined, the evaluation found, while those rates rose for other low-income and minority students.

Speaking about the graduation rates after Friday’s banquet, Sims blamed the recession in part for their decline, saying that forced some students to “play the role of income earners” for their families and took their focus off of school.

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The graduation rate of PEOPLE scholars will soon rebound, Sims said.

While 63 percent of participants who started at UW-Madison in 2009 graduated within six years, Sims said the university projects that rate will rise to 89 percent for the cohort of students who entered in 2012. The projection, Sims said, was based on how well PEOPLE students performed academically through their first two years of college.

PEOPLE has made other improvements as well, Sims said, increasing its use of data and bolstering prep programs for the ACT and college courses.

Sims also said he supports beefing up PEOPLE’s outreach efforts in Milwaukee.

Unlike some students in the Madison area and Menominee Indian School District who can start PEOPLE programs in elementary or middle school, those in Milwaukee can’t take part until after their sophomore year of high school. Sims agreed with the program’s evaluation that 10th grade is too late.

“My preference would be that we capture them before they enter high school,” Sims said.

He acknowledged, though, that in a time of tight budgets, increasing PEOPLE’s work in one part of the state could force the program to pull back in others. UW officials are still determining what those new programs will look like, Sims said, and what areas could see less of a presence from PEOPLE.

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