Quality Initiative

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Quality Initiative: Identifying Barriers to First Generation Students at SIU

Executive Summary 

It is not uncommon for first year first time students to struggle with the inimitable experience of transitioning from high school to college, but the challenges may be intensified for first-generation college students. They often don’t have any family members with college experience to provide guidance.  It is generally understood that first-generation students need targeted support to thrive in a competitive higher education atmosphere. Institutions that offer programs specifically for first-generation students have shown a significant impact on student success and retention.

Approximately one half of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s (SIU) undergraduate student population are first-generation students. Over the years, SIU has implemented numerous support services that align with best practices and are intended to improve the retention of first-generation and other under-represented students. However, these previous attempts were implemented without examining data that could identify specific needs of students on the SIU campus.  Identifying those needs would allow us to invest in areas of impact and provide a baseline for assessing the efficacy of initiatives targeting the success of first-generation students. In addition to identifying barriers, this study developed a profile of first-generation students that will inform the campus community. 

The Quality Initiative Project examined four variables that intuitively define the profile first-generation students: 1) Demographic variables, including race, ethnicity, gender, college major, county of origin, and eligibility for federal aid; 2) Financial variables, including cost of college attendance and affordability; 3) Academic variables, including retention and graduation rates, GPA, ACT scores, credit enrollment, and likelihood of being on academic probation; and 4) self-reported challenges to completing college, as expressed by students themselves. Contributors to the Quality Initiative project include faculty, staff, administrators, and a campus wide working group, the First-Generation Community of Practice. 

The analyses revealed gaps in academic indicators such as high school and college GPA, retention rates, and graduation rates between first-generation and non-first-generation students. In addition, a higher percentage of first-generation students were shown to have been placed on academic probation relative to non-first-generation students. Finally, first-generation students reported several financial challenges that impacted their success while in college. Specific details of these factors are presented later in this report. 

For several years now the SIU community has been interested in creating a first-generation center for students, stemming in part from a $1M grant from the Suder Foundation in 2010. Central to the grant was implementing the First Scholars program, which targeted full-time first-time first-generation students with solid academic abilities who might not meet the criteria for highly competitive merit scholarships. Numerous factors may be at play for first-generation students, ranging from bias in standardized exams, a lack of support in meeting the markers used for admission, and hardships which may have affected their advancement in high school. First Scholars required students to live in a Living Learning Community as freshmen, and provided comprehensive academic, social, personal development, and financial support.

The First Gen Community of Practice was established with membership from faculty and staff to support the program. After the grant ended, the Community of Practice continued to advocate and provide resources for first-generation students. This committee also served as an advisory board for the Quality Initiative Project. The Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs supported a Provost Fellow through Fall 2018 to Spring 2019 to lead the Quality Initiative Project. The Fellow met regularly with the Community of Practice and solicited their feedback on all aspects of the project.

The Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs has been successful in obtaining financial support through the SIU Foundation to establish a specialized program for first-generation students. In Fall 2019, the First Saluki Center will open. The center will serve as a campus-wide collaboration dedicated to providing, social and emotional support, financial literacy, career readiness, and academic resources for first-generation students. The Quality Initiative Project promoted the awareness and interest on campus for this first-gen resource center. The findings from the project will also provide a baseline for assessing the effectiveness of the program and center.

The results of the initiative will be presented to various constituencies this fall to inform the campus community. Understanding the demographics and challenges of our students will influence the classroom environment and the services provided throughout campus. SIU’s commitment to provide students with an education that promises to be transformative is strengthened when we have the knowledge of who our students are. 

Note: This report uses the federal definition of a first-generation college student, which identifies a student as first-generation if his or her parent(s) or legal guardian(s) have not completed a bachelor’s degree.

Click here for a full copy of the report. HLC Open Pathway Qualitive Initiative Report and Panel Review