A Programmatic Approach to Ensuring the Success of First-Generation, Low-Income Students

Janelle Ellis Rouse, PhD
Brooke Barnett, PhD
Brooke Barnett, PhD

Although college access continues to be a central focus for first-year, first-generation, and low-income students, campus engagement, involvement, and awareness are equally critical to the success and achievement of this important group of college students.

Several scholars suggest that understanding the experiences of these students is key to engaging them in the high-impact practices that matter. Just as important, but challenging, is developing best practices to support their experiences and involvement; this step is particularly critical for low-income, first-generation students who are not supported by campus-based academic programs and may otherwise slip through the cracks. High-quality engagement opportunities for these students are essential for matriculation and persistence, transition and adjustment, leadership, and student diversity concerns.

For years, leading higher education researchers have echoed the personal, social, and educational benefits of campus engagement and positive interactions for college students in general. However, when we consider the enrollment growth of first-generation and low-income students in the U.S. — with 54.5 percent first-generation and 82.7 percent low-income and Pell Grant students, as well as an increase in first-generation, low-income Hispanic students — institutions might not yet be poised to effectively meet their needs.

Noted University of Pennsylvania researcher Shaun Harper, PhD, conducted a seminal college achievement study. In it, he reported the findings of numerous researchers who corroborate the notion that “active engagement produces educational benefits and gains in the following domains: cognitive and intellectual development, moral and ethical development, practical competence and skills transferability, racial and gender identity development, and college adjustment.”

In an attempt to create the active engagement cited by Harper, Elon University’s Odyssey Scholars program focuses on the holistic success of students. As a merit-based program, it supports educational access and achievement for high-achieving, socioeconomically diverse students who demonstrate financial need. Program leaders have developed a successful approach using mentoring that advances students’ personal and professional development, allowing them to be more empowered and engaged in the university, the nation, and the global community.

The program uses a holistic form of both formal and informal mentoring that nurtures the “souls” of students so they may put into focus and action their dreams and goals, thus increasing their self-efficacy and self-authorship. So far, it is showing promising results.

The first- to second-year retention rate for Odyssey Scholars participants is 96 percent for the class of 2017, compared with our university average of 90 percent for the same class. In addition, the graduation rate for the class of 2016 is 92 percent, compared with our university average of 90 percent for that class.

The program increases students’ cultural capital by expanding their awareness of major aspects of the university; these include how to get involved with high-impact activities such as undergraduate research and global study, securing campus employment and summer internships, seeking faculty support and guidance, and increasing financial planning ability.

In addition, scholars in the program often encourage friends who are also first-generation and low-income to seek support and guidance from program directors. In an effort to provide these students with a more holistic engagement experience, Elon developed the First Year Engagement program to help students thrive in all aspects of the cultural and intellectual life of the university community.

After two years of focus groups, research, and student interviews, our data indeed supported the need for such a structured program for identified low-income and first-generation students who are not part of a cohort, such as in the Odyssey Scholars program. Those who identified with this demographic said they wanted a strong mentoring experience with faculty, staff, and students as a way to increase their sense of belonging, campus engagement, overall campus awareness, and personal and professional development. We hope this new initiative will result in similar outcomes as the Odyssey program for more students across Elon’s campus.

In the last academic year, we used the foundation of the Odyssey program to pilot the formal First Year Engagement program to support the college experience of our first-year, first-generation, and low-income students who are not part of a cohort. In doing so, we paired 20 students with a university faculty or staff member in a yearlong mentoring relationship. Along the way, we learned a few things:

● Although athletes belong to a cohort, they still wanted the opportunity for formal mentorship and the chance to connect with students who share a significant aspect of their identity (first generation, low income, LGBTQIA, or race or ethnicity).

● A program can be created with little or no budget. Our faculty and staff served as the mentors, and we engaged campus experts for presentations.

● So many people in our campus community said they were first-generation and low-income students and were delighted to have the chance to mentor a new generation. We sent out a call for mentors in summer and received 180 responses.

● We struggled to get students to sign up for the program and are working on new ways to engage them in the summer before they arrive.

● Some students did not think they wanted or needed a program and then decided after arriving on campus or well into the academic year that they did, so having a plan for lateral entry was important.

● Students want help finding campus jobs and preparing for interviews. If you have a professional development center or a career services office, partner with them to provide help.

● Faculty members in finance were happy to offer a workshop on financial planning; these sessions were practical and useful for students.

● Although scholarship packages are key to supporting low-income students, a program that helps build academic and cultural capital and helps students gain on-campus employment goes a long way toward ensuring their success.

We look forward to our second year of the program and will continue to find ways to ensure that all students flourish socially and academically.●

Brooke Barnett, PhD, is associate provost for inclusive community and professor of communications at Elon University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Janelle Ellis Rouse, PhD, is director of collegiate mentoring and the Collegiate Start@Elon program at Elon University.