When Tasha Wilkie helped out in the math department as an undergrad at Coppin State University, she dealt with some students who came in without basic skills. They didn't know their multiplication tables or how to work with fractions.
"We have students who've taken courses like three times" before they passed, said Wilkie, who graduated in 2011 and is now working toward a doctorate in biology at Ohio State University. There, she realized she also was ill-equipped for some classes by her studies at Coppin.
But this commencement season, Wilkie and others remain Coppin boosters. Even though Coppin boasts one of the worst graduation rates in the nation — only 15 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen graduate within six years — they say Coppin is a much-needed institution that could be turned around.
"It's kind of like a diamond in the rough," said Egypt Buie, who graduated with a bachelor of science degree in interdisciplinary studies. The New York-native said the campus was more nurturing than others she experienced.
Over the past dozen years, the university, known for producing much-needed nurses and teachers for the city's workforce, has received additional funds to make up for decades of under-funding at historically black colleges. It has added 20 new academic degrees, overhauled its facilities in Northwest Baltimore and increased the faculty by nearly half.
It offers one of the least-expensive educations in the state, and its nursing and social work programs are well-regarded by employers.
But enrollment has dropped, as has the school's graduation rate. The 2012 rate is the lowest in the state, and significantly lower than three other traditionally black institutions in Maryland, which average a combined graduation rate of about 37 percent, according to an analysis of data from the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Meanwhile, Coppin spends nearly double what comparable institutions spend per degree, according to a report from the state's Department of Legislative Services — $139,000 compared with $70,000.
A revolving door of presidents and provosts over the past decade contributed to the academic slide, along with misplaced priorities, mismanagement and the school's altruistic mission, which focuses in part on the needs of disadvantaged city residents, according to a committee charged with studying the school. Roughly 45 percent of Coppin's students are from Baltimore, and most come from low-income backgrounds.
The result has been poorly prepared students — mostly incoming, but also some of those graduating — according to the committee report issued last month.
The committee recommends sweeping changes, including a significant shift in the admissions policy that would limit enrollment to students who are likely to succeed, "rather than just to take sort of whoever comes," said Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County senator and former Coppin instructor who served on the committee that developed the report.
Members also suggest that outreach activities should be reviewed to make sure they contribute to the school's academics. Coppin runs a public nursing clinic, a community elementary school and a separate high school.
The proposals are aimed at reshaping Coppin. They recommend scaling back certain academic offerings, like dance, to concentrate on those more likely to make a student employable. They also call for better marketing of the school and joining with community colleges to bring in quality transfer students.
Some on the committee blamed Coppin's past presidents for the school's shortcomings, while faculty members questioned why no one, including the Board of Regents, stepped in sooner.
"The findings of the committee — none of that's new, it's something the board should have known had they paid attention," said associate professor John L. Hudgins, who chairs the Department of Social Sciences and is president of Coppin's chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
Chancellor William E. Kirwan said he monitored the school's presidents, evaluating them annually and setting goals. But he and the board had to allow time for change to happen, and when it didn't they assembled the study committee before putting another president in place.
"The board said, 'We're not going to repeat this pattern, we're going to take an in-depth look,'" Kirwan said. "The strategy here is different in that the board is now demanding change and people are going to be held accountable."
The inquiry is the latest in a string of efforts to transform Coppin.
A 2001 report, the result of an agreement between Maryland and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, recommended a $300 million infusion through 2011, arguing that Coppin's mission "is so critical to Baltimore City and the state that Coppin must be revitalized."
The cash improved facilities, but academics still lagged.
Two-thirds of Coppin's incoming freshmen require remedial work, according to the most recent report. Their average SAT score is 882, compared with 990 throughout the state, and they average a high school GPA of 2.4 (out of 4) — figures that are more in line with a start at community college than a four-year institution.
Many of Coppin's current students work full-time while attending school and more than half are parents — factors that lead many to drop out.
The report recommends Coppin partner with community colleges and be more selective in its admissions process. But it says little about how officials can attract better students.
The school was about 2,000 students shy of its recommended capacity last fall, with an enrollment of 3,612. That under-enrollment has been blamed for pushing up Coppin's per-student spending figure.
The report pointed to management problems as well. The school became unnecessarily top-heavy, the committee found, with the number of faculty increasing by 49 percent as enrollment went down, and the number of administrators nearly doubling over the past decade.
"What we found was significant misalignment between where faculty and administrative resources were placed and where the students" needed them to be, Kelley said.
Coppin does have students who graduate within four years, and some who go on to earn graduate degrees at prestigious institutions, including Johns Hopkins, Duke and Harvard universities.
Some are student-athletes and some are transfer students who are often older than first-time freshmen. Those two groups have higher graduation rates, at 60 percent and 40 percent, respectively, compared with first-time, full-time freshmen in 2012.
Wilkie was a biology student at Coppin before the completion of the school's new $80 million science and technology building, which is expected to be up and running by 2015. She said she missed out on hands-on course work because labs and resources weren't available.
"We just didn't have the necessary facilities," Wilkie said, adding that some professors paid for materials out of their own pockets "to allow us to get the experience needed."
When she entered grad school in Ohio, she had to double her time studying, trying to catch up on what she missed as an undergraduate. "I was not well prepared at all," she said.
Still, she would recommend Coppin.
"Regardless of the issues, because we do have issues to work through, I still believe the school has a lot of promise," she said. "If you're a serious student, I think you can go through Coppin and be very successful."
Several hundred successful students strode across the stage at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall recently at Coppin's commencement ceremony, including many who were their family's first college graduates, according to a show of hands. Proud families snapped photos on digital cameras and iPads in the audience, letting out whoops and hollers when their relatives' names were called.
But amid the pomp, some speakers spoke of the school's difficult transition.
"You are now in a position to be critical of Coppin. … We need you to kick our butts and tell us what sucks," said Nicholas Eugene, an associate professor in the math and computer science department and president of the faculty senate. He urged the new graduates to evaluate their experiences and play a role in Coppin's "unfolding story."
Coppin's past two presidents, hired in 2003 and 2008, came in with "change agendas," but were unable to make much difference after "valiant" efforts, Kirwan said. The last president, Reginald S. Avery, received a no-confidence vote from faculty, who pointed out that he failed to disburse $800,000 in student aid. He stepped down in January.
Avery declined to comment, and his predecessor, Stanley Battle, could not be reached.
Mortimer H. Neufville was appointed interim president at Coppin, a post he previously held at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, another historically black institution.
He and Kirwan are developing an implementation plan for the committee recommendations and are expected to present it to the Board of Regents this month.
Neufville's first priority has been to balance the budget, he said, though he's also begun to reorganize academic areas. Two of Coppin's five schools — education, and arts and sciences — will merge in July, and other programs will be eliminated, he said.
"I believe that Coppin is doing a tremendous service to young African-Americans and we are a vital service to Baltimore and the state of Maryland," Neufville said, "and I believe with some renewed interest ... we can go a very, very long way."
Coppin at a glance
Total enrollment: 3,612
Full-time students: 72 percent
Undergraduates: 87 percent
Average age: 30
Baltimore residents: 45 percent
Pell Grant recipients: 69 percent
2nd-year retention rate: 64 percent
New freshman graduation rate: 15 percent
Transfer student graduation rate: 40 percent
SOURCE: Coppin State University