The Xavier Way
Propelled by a century-old mission, Xavier University of Louisiana is ushering in the next workforce and putting a record number of black students in medical school.
“Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you won’t be here next year.”
This legendary line was supposedly delivered by a Harvard law professor to his class of first-year students, and whether or not that mythos holds any ground in reality, the sentiment has lived on, echoing through introductory courses nationwide.
It might have originated as a pessimistic adage meant to intimidate incoming students, or a warning about the dedication required to successfully navigate the impending workload. But it can also be seen as a peripheral reference to the retention crisis currently plaguing American colleges and universities, with first-year student retention percentages falling well into the 50s and 60s at some major institutions.
Research shows that while poor student performance and coursework intensity certainly can be contributors to low retention, these are not the only factors. It’s just as common for students to leave school because of financial stress, lack of preparation from early education, or an imperfect fit with a learning environment that doesn’t meet their needs.
That’s not a problem at Xavier University of Louisiana. Dr. Reynold Verret says that while there might be a decline in national retention trends, the opposite is true at Xavier, where he has served as president since 2016.
In fact, Verret says the key to creating a confident, qualified workforce—and consequently creating an engaged group of students who will return for a second year and further—lies in the century-old mission laid down by the school’s founder, St. Katharine Drexel, a philanthropist and nun who created what remains the only Catholic and Historically Black College or University (HBCU) in the United States.
Xavier’s first-to-second-year retention has climbed by 3%, and the size of incoming freshman classes has grown by 20% year over year as of fall 2018—the school’s highest numbers in eight years. Even more impressive is Xavier’s role in putting the second-highest number of black students into medical school out of every undergraduate college in the country.
According to career experts from Zippia.com, who measured employment rates for students 10 years from enrollment, 93.46 percent of Xavier graduates successfully enter Louisiana’s workforce—a figure that exceeds all other universities in the state.
Xavier’s efforts in workforce development reach back to the college’s inception. Xavier established the first college of pharmacy in Louisiana, even at a time when its graduates couldn’t be licensed in this or any other Confederate state. It has consistently focused efforts on serving underprivileged minorities. And when damages from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita posed an existential threat to HBCUs along the Gulf South, Xavier leaders held a key role in organizing a coalition that worked with Congress and the US Department of Education to have $388 million in loans forgiven for affected HBCUs.
Xavier graduates from all walks of life have served the local and national communities in significant ways—with notable alumni including Alexis Herman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
“Having a quality education is the fundamental element to creating a just world,” says Verret. “We send out our students with a service to our mission. True career preparation is about giving students the highest level of learning so that they are able to think deeply about complex issues.
When they leave here, they will have high expectations of themselves and they won’t feel intimidated by any challenges that come before them because they’ve been challenged here already.”
CASTING A WIDE NET
Xavier’s growing numbers in enrollment and retention are the result of a multi-layered recruitment strategy that starts with sharing the story of the school and which is designed to result in the creation of confident and competent workers who will continue to give back to the community.
The university reaches into markets including Maryland, Washington D.C. and Chicago to bring in prospective students of all ages. Recruiters target high schoolers with superlative achievements and focus additional efforts on black males—who, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, represent the demographic least likely to pursue higher education due to a lack of black male role models in K-12 public schools.
Perhaps even more instrumental to the university’s growth is its acceptance of students that other colleges might turn away due to lower ACT and SAT scores. Dr. Verret says the school welcomes these applicants with the confidence that Xavier has the resources necessary to nurture and lead each one to success. The university’s updated Common Core curriculum has been tailored to encourage transfer students, especially those from community colleges. These new core standards make it easier for students to transfer existing credits, reducing the need for repeat classes or even repeat academic years.
“Not every student that comes through our doors has received the education that he or she deserves,” says Dr. Verret. “Intentional work is being done to help entering students who may not have had the right pre-collegiate preparation. We welcome students that fit in a broad range of ACT and SAT scores, because it’s very often that expectations are tied to a numerical score. Some students have scores that would compete with the elite Ivies, then there are others in the lower percentiles, like the 18 to 20 range.”
By creating an elaborate network of support, Xavier’s educators seek to initiate a shift in perspective: What a student might perceive as an insurmountable obstacle at another university is presented as an opportunity for self-growth at Xavier.
“What sets us apart is engaging students,” Verret says. “The faculty and the associated staff are committed to these students because they may come in with different chinks in their armor. It’s important to us that they are not defeated by their first class in math, chemistry or whatever they take. Those introductory classes become an opportunity to discover those chinks in their armor, and we speak about what repair looks like and give them a path forward.”
The path forward is key. Verret says that instead of setting its students on a linear career trajectory, Xavier grants them the freedom to carve their own way forward—even if that means they end up at a different destination than initially intended.
“Our students are not just educated for a job,” he says. “They’re really educated to shape a career. We could have a high-achieving chemist on the dean’s list who chooses to go to law school. She’s not following the traditional track of a chemist because her gifts call her to [do] something else. But what she’s doing in chemistry will still serve her quite well. That is not unusual at Xavier. [Students] are educated to take on new and challenging roles, and that’s the stuff that we contribute to the world.”
CONSTRUCTING A MORE EQUITABLE NEW ORLEANS
In 2017, Xavier was named sixth in the nation for upward mobility, with the Equality of Opportunity Project reporting that 80 percent of the university’s graduates are able to advance from the bottom fifth of income distribution to the top three-fifths.
Verret says this is part of the effort to make the city more equitable by creating a system in which individuals and families relocate to and remain in New Orleans, helping to establish the community as an educational destination.
“Our students are helping to build the economy here,” he says. “There are Xavierites who graduate and remain to actually begin jobs and set up enterprises in this region. They are filling our schools. They are teachers and they are political leaders. There are Xavierites in government right here, like our mayor. They are an instrumental part of this community.”
CHANGING THE FACE OF MEDICINE
When the Association of American Medical Colleges published its study of undergraduate institutions sending the most black applicants into medical school, only two Louisiana schools made the list. They were separated by 21 spots.
At no. 23 was the Agricultural & Mechanical College at Louisiana State University, and at no. 2—outranked only by Howard University in Washington, D.C.—was Xavier University of Louisiana.
Released in October 2018, the AAMC’s study ranked each institution on total amount of medical school applicants, total amount of black or African-American applicants, and overall contribution to national percentages of black or African-American applicants to medical schools in the United States. Of the 104 pre-med Xavier students applying for continued medical education, 91 of them were black—1.7% of the nation’s average.
And while national trends show that the number of black males entering medical school—or even pursuing undergraduate education—continues to fall, Xavier pushes against that trend.
AAMC data between 2013 and 2018 shows that Xavier is not only sending a substantial percentage of black students to medical school, but the university is producing a leading number of graduates. Only 11 other institutions came close to the 147 black students who attended Xavier and successfully completed medical school, outpacing several Ivy Leagues along the way.
“Historically black colleges continue to educate a significant number of the African leadership and talent in this country,” he says. “The African-American community was deprived of much wealth, if you think about what happened in the ’30s and ’40s when the FHA excluded all African-American neighborhoods. Therefore, the value of African-American homes dramatically decreased, while the value of other homes in the country went sky high. That was intentional. So, there was a lot of wealth that did not come into these communities, and these schools do not have the same wealth of other schools in this country.
“More than half of our students are Pell-eligible, which means that they are in the lower economic distribution of the United States,” he continues. “One of the great barriers to retention is a financial barrier. A small crisis in the family can become a financial disaster and could pull students out of school. It’s important to create resources for our talented need-based students to help them attend schools like Xavier, where they can accomplish great things. That’s the challenge for us.”
On campus, the Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit provides an additional push in social impact. The Center is a public engagement endeavor by Xavier’s Division of Academic Affairs and is described as “a response to Xavier’s calling as a black and Catholic institution of higher learning.”
Established in 2018, the center serves as a meeting ground for research and critical thinking on issues related to race, class and other oppressive systems. Such subjects include the K-12 public education system, environmental sustainability and criminal justice, with each topic being evaluated under both an academic and an ontological lens.
“It’s like this: The country is becoming more black and brown, and the majority of our talent are in places where we are not investing enough in education,” Verret says. “That talent will actually build our country and keep the United States a great nation. So, if we don’t invest in the education of young minds and the K-12 pipeline, the country will be in a difficult place. When we build society, it’s about building education in the early grades, and making sure we get good results.”
To that end, Xavier has implemented a doctoral program in educational leadership, an offering unique among other HBCUs. The three-year program is designed to train educators at the principal level and beyond, filling the need for effective leaders and role models in early education.
That work is not just bolstered by Xavier itself—in June 2019, the university received a $500,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to further hone the Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit’s efforts on racial equity and advancing community engagement. The university has also found a partner in Ochsner Health System, together launching a physician assistant program that earns graduates a master’s degree in health sciences and includes specialties like family medicine, pediatrics and emergency medicine.
Channeling efforts and resources in these directions, Verret says, is what’s currently necessary—these are what university leaders perceive as the greatest needs in the current societal framework. But that could change at any time, and he says Xavier will continue adapting in order to affect the greatest possible change.
“Today, we know there are active needs in supporting K-12 education with great teachers,” Verret says. “In realizing the mission that was given to us by Mother Katharine, we’ll always be asking ourselves where a great Xavier education is needed. We will always be doing something that builds society. That is what drives our new programs, by finding the places where we can contribute significantly by educating students.”
If all goes according to Verret’s plan, the university will be turning that Harvard professor’s grim proverb on its head. Instead, a look to the left or right will reveal allies and supporters who will stand shoulder-to-shoulder until graduation day, and together they will boldly lead a better and brighter workforce.
The Saint That Started It All
In 1915, St. Katharine Drexel was approached by Archbishop James Blenk of New Orleans to discuss the lack of higher-education available to Catholic African-Americans.
At the time, Drexel had already established The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which was committed to the plight of Native Americans. The sisters had learned of the treatment of Native people in the West and, disturbed by the intentional denigration of their culture, hoped to empower them with education and faith. Drexel and her fellow nuns became equally passionate about extending this care to former African slaves and their descendants, whom they felt were still suffering from the effects of commodification.
Following a simple mission—to create a more just and humane society—Drexel purchased the former Southern University building and surrounding properties, renaming the institution in honor of missionary St. Francis Xavier.
To this day, Xavier remains the only American college to be founded by an American-born saint, and it is the United States’ only Catholic and Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
That’s not to say that students necessarily have to be Catholic—in fact, Xavier University President Dr. Reynold Verret says that to limit the student body to one religion or race would go against Drexel’s mission.
“It was written by Mother Drexel that we will educate people, of whatever faith or denomination, and we will minister to their spiritual improvement, but we will not proselytize,” he says. “That was her mission, and that’s what we continue to do.”
Xavier through the decades
- The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (S.B.S.) are established by Katharine Drexel, who dedicated her life to working with Native Americans and African-Americans. Drexel was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 2003.
- Xavier founded as a college preparatory school by Katharine Drexel and S.B.S. in New Orleans on Magazine Street
- College of Arts & Sciences established, creating the university
- College of Pharmacy established
- Rev. Edward Brunner, S.S.J., serves as first president
- Graduate school established
- University moves to new campus on Palmetto St. (now Drexel Drive)
- Mother M. Agatha Ryan, S.B.S., begins 22-year tenure as president
- Veterans return after World War II
- University widens academic options
- Katharine Drexel dies
- Sr. Josephine Kennedy, S.B.S., begins 10-year tenure as president
- First permanent residence halls, College of Pharmacy are built
- Sr. Maris Stella Ross, S.B.S., serves as president for three years
- S.B.S. order relinquish ownership to independent board of trustees (members of S.B.S. still serve on board)
- Dr. Norman C. Francis, a 1952 XU grad, named first lay president, begins 47-year tenure
- Xavier introduces core curriculum
- Science complex constructed to accommodate influx of students majoring in the sciences
- Pope John Paul II addresses National Convocation at Xavier
- Surge in enrollment doubles student body
- Institute for Black Catholic Studies is established
- Library Resources Center and pharmacy addition constructed, giving Xavier a bold new presence in the city skyline, “Green Roofs”
- Xavier becomes leader in placement of African-Americans into medical school
- Living Learning Center, a contemporary co-ed living facility, replaces an old warehouse.
- Annex to science complex built
- College of Arts & Sciences celebrates 75 years
- Katharine Drexel is canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II
- University Center and St. Martin Deporres Resident Hall are built
- Enrollment reaches all-time high of 4,100
- Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans and Xavier campus in 2005
- Xavier re-opens in 2006
- Art Village opens
- Tennis courts constructed
- Convocation Center and Annex are constructed
- Xavier Archway to campus completed
- President Norman Francis retires after 47-year tenure
- Dr. C. Reynold Verret named president
- Xavier expands certificate, online, undergraduate and graduate offerings
- Xavier introduces new core curriculum
- Skyway over Washington Street Canal constructed