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.