Low-income, first-generation UW students at disadvantage from day one

 

Sara Whittle was one of nine kids in her family from Baggs, and the only one to go to college.

She received a scholarship to attend an all-girls school, where she stayed for a year-and-a-half. Because she was a first-generation student from a low-income background, Whittle said she came into college “under-resourced,” or without the same background many college students have.

Eventually she transferred to the University of Wyoming and earned her bachelor’s degree in 2007 and her master’s in 2011. She is now the project director for student success services, the on-campus program designed for low-income and first-generation students, or students with disabilities — all with academic need.

“They didn’t come up with the same set of resources,” Whittle said. “It’s challenging to say these students deserve this while others don’t. These students need to be equal to others and start at the same point to get to the same levels.”

These students, enrolled in the program or not but eligible, enter UW with lower GPAs and persist at a rate lower than the general UW population. Their high school GPA is an average 3.17 compared to 3.49, they have a retention rate of 54 percent versus 77 percent and a second semester UW GPA of 2.15 versus 2.82.

Participants in the student success services program who persist, or are retained, remain in good academic standing and graduate at higher rates than those eligible but not served.

Students in the program stayed in college at a rate of 80 percent versus 54 percent, 72 percent remained in good academic standing versus 57 percent and 50 percent graduated in six years versus 29 percent, according to 2009 data.

“Students are challenged to come to us because they think they can do it on their own,” Whittle said. “They should think of it as how successful they could be if they didn’t have to do it on their own.”

Pilar Flores, director of student education opportunities, said her team is currently writing the next grant proposal, but that data doesn’t change much. Whittle said these students are selected from pre-screening in the admissions process.

“Students with a relationship will maintain and persist at higher rates than ones who don’t,” Whittle said. “It’s important to us. We want them to feel connected and have a resource. Their paradigm of priorities is often different.”

Whittle said many students see college as a way to get a good job and make money, and can be frustrated when they’re required to take courses that don’t seem relevant to their major. Part of the program’s job is to encourage learning for learning’s sake, she said.

UW’s funding and grant-writing for student success services is on a five-year basis. The program serves 230 students on campus, but as of 2009, about 4,800 students would have qualified. Total UW enrollment that year was roughly 12,000 students, according to official federal counts.

Student success services is a federally funded program. Until recently, the program received about $385,000 but a recent cut dropped it to $354,000. Program administrators set aside about $10,000 for student scholarships and grants each year. UW matches that with $35,000 each year.

The program has four support prongs — academic, personal/social, financial and career/major. Advisors meet with students every 1-2 weeks to discuss potential majors, how to seek out financial aid and how to navigate “the hidden rules of college,” Whittle said. Students can also check out computers.

Most low-income students work 30-hour jobs to make ends meet, and the program will help students find flexible jobs, said Michael Wade, associate director of student education opportunities.

“Through that, they build a pretty in-depth relationship with the student, who comes to know there’s a person sitting there who believes in me, who knows me, who understands where I come from, the challenges I’m facing and is going to be there to be my advocate,” Wade said. “That’s sort of our attitude. We want to empower them, but show them how to do it so can do it on their own.”

Several programs are available for low-income students in high school to transition into the student success services program. The McNair program serves graduate students.

Transfer students from Wyoming have similar rates as students enrolled in student success services. About 900 students transfer each year, with 75 percent in the fall and 25 percent in the spring. Of those, 60 percent have an associate’s degree, or about 60 hours of college credit.

About 75 percent who come in with at least 30 credit hours, or about two semesters, continue on to a second semester at UW. About 80 percent who come in with at least 60 credit hours continue on to a second semester.

Patrice Noel, coordinator for transfer student success, said UW offers informal events to make transfers feel more at home on campus and meet students with similar backgrounds. Before coming to UW, transfer students have their own orientation.

A new program, Wyoming Transfer Advance, is designed to ease the transition to UW. Students with an associate’s degree are automatically admitted, the application fee is waived and students are provided with additional advising support while at UW.

Noel said a student welcome lunch, weekly coffee hour and workshops are offered for transfer students.

“We help them navigate in a new environment and get connected,” Noel said. “In the past year, we’re starting to look at if students leave, did they go back to community college, a different university or drop out. I see us doing more data collection, more purposeful intervention.”

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