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Many first generation students call UIndy home

Posted on 10.09.2013

“I’m one of six—the fifth child and one of the youngest—and I’m the first one going off to college,” said freshman nursing major Brandi Baker.

For students like Baker, the University of Indianapolis has been a place to take the next step and be the first in their families to attend college.

For years, UIndy has been perceived as a first-generation university, and according to data from Vice President of Institutional Planning and Research Patrick Alles, this perception is well-founded.

High numbers, slowly falling

This fall, 41.5 percent of freshmen and transfer students were first generation college students, meaning that they were the first person in their families to pursue a post-secondary degree. However, this number is slightly less than in the past.

Since the fall of  2011, the first-generation population has hovered between 41.5 and 42 percent. This is a decline from earlier years for which data are available. The highest recent spike in first generation enrollment was in 2010, when that population was 48.4 percent.

Alles said that the recent decline in first-generation students could be a function of the economic downturn and many parents themselves having sought higher education in order to make ends meet.

“There is nothing we are doing differently to target a different group. Admissions isn’t looking for different students,” Alles said. “… These numbers are a reflection of the economy. I think you have the effect that some people have been forced to go back to college to get a credential, a certificate, or maybe had some college and wanted to finish their degree. And a lot of that shows up here.”

Differing rates of success

When students have a parent who has gone through college, that can influence whether the students return to UIndy year after year. According to data provided by Alles, 78 percent of second-generation students from the class starting in fall 2012 returned to UIndy in the spring, but only 66 percent of first-generation students returned.

“It is an important phenomenon when you’re looking at enrollment, admissions, even graduation rates, because the boost or the impact of your parent having been through college is measurable and significant,” Alles said.

Another fairly significant difference between first- and second-generation students is that first-generation students have a considerably lower on-time graduation rate than second-generation students. According to data provided by Alles, only about one third of first-generation students graduate in the standard four years, while more than half of second-generation students do.

Retention Initiatives Coordinator Erin Stoner said that UIndy is doing several things to improve graduation and retention rates among all students, not just first generation.

“Improving our retention and graduation rate is very important to us. Our new president has made it clear that this is an overarching goal in his strategic plan,” Stoner said. “Improving retention is a community effort and can only be achieved with a student focus in mind.”

According to Stoner, the university recently implemented a new software called Beacon, which is a web program that measures student abilities and shows which students may need extra help. The program also allows faculty and staff to flag students who they think might need extra help. Another software that is still in the works is Collegiate Link, which Stoner said will help give students a common experience and provide them with the skills to get a good job after graduation.

Stoner said that she sees low retention rates in a different way than other university officials. She focuses less on monetary value and more on giving students a valuable education.

“Many institutions may see a lower retention rate as losing dollars, thus decreasing salaries and funds,” Stoner said. “In my opinion, each student we lose means one less student who will have the irreplaceable advantage of obtaining a degree from this wonderful institution, thus inhibiting their likelihood of obtaining quality employment and becoming a meaningful contributor of our society.”

Bridge Scholars program

One thing that UIndy is doing to specifically help first-generation students succeed is the Bridge Scholars program.

The Bridge Scholars program is an introduction to UIndy and shows students the tools to succeed in college. According to Director of Bridge Scholars Program and Assistant Professor of Teacher Education Mary Busch, the program demystifies what it means to attend college. She emphasized that it is not a remedial program.

The program starts in a student’s junior spring semester in high school with a guidance counselor’s recommendation. Counselors recommend capable students who just may need an extra push toward success.

Prospective scholars visit UIndy several times  and are able to shadow current students before they become official Greyhounds. All of the Bridge Scholars are also 21st Century Scholarship students and get an additional grant along with their other financial aid. Busch said there are around 70 current Bridge Scholars.

Busch said that the program benefits students by showing them what it really means to attend college: the expectations, the reality of affordability and the multiple benefits that achieving a degree will bring.

“Had it not been for Bridge, I don’t think that many of these students would even have considered college because they don’t think that their parents are able to afford it,” she said. “And we talk about how they can afford it and why you need to go to college and get that diploma—what life is going to be like if you don’t go and what life is going to be like if you do go.”

Freshman nursing major Taylor Morst, a Bridge Scholar, said that a component of the program is a course in what UIndy has to offer students as well as making sure students are on the path to college success.

“You learn where the resources are on campus. The writing lab is stressed to us. They also tell you about the peer tutoring program,” Morst said. “We also have midterms to make sure we are on track and set before they let us go and it is just on us.”

First-generation students face many obstacles, whether a lack of money, a lack of support or not knowing where to start their college search. Morst, Baker and freshman nursing major Kasey Faubion all mentioned that they were helped a great deal by programs at their high schools and decided on UIndy because of the nursing program and friendly atmosphere.

Setting an example

First-generation students, like many at UIndy, can be leaders for their family and the community. Baker said that the first-generation students have a special influence on the next generation. For her, that has been her younger sister.

“I’m definitely a role model to my sister; she’s 16. College wasn’t really an option [for our family] until she and I got into high school and started doing well,” Baker said. “Being a first-generation student is more important because you have people that are looking up to you.”

Although the numbers show a difference in first- and second-generation college students, the difference may not always be parental influence. Faubion said that despite a student’s parents having gone to college, each student still has to find his or her own path to success.

“I think that they [first- and second-generation students] are more alike than different, only because they are going through the same experiences together, and they are both figuring out their way,” Faubion said. “So whether or not your parents have been there, done that, your experience is still going to be different.”

All students, whether first generation or ninth, have to go out and seek help if they are struggling. However, Morst said that UIndy has plenty of resources.

“You know, it is our responsibility to go to class, so it is our responsibility to go look for help,” Morst said. “And it is here on UIndy’s campus—you just have to find it.”

According to Alles, UIndy and other schools are enrolling even more students, and many politicians, such as Indiana Governor Mike Pence, are trying to get more Americans to pursue higher education. Alles said that, for these reasons, first generation college students could eventually become a novelty.

“Eventually, we will get to the point where there just isn’t a lot of first-gen. anymore,” he said. “Everyone here right now will not be able to say their children are first-gen. So the more we educate America, the more you will see first-gen. as a phenomenon in decline.”


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