The Future is Now: First-Generation Students, Community Engagement and Innovative Institutions

Compare the typical college campus today with one 30 years ago, and some stark differences become apparent. More students than ever are enrolling in college; however, graduation rates have remained fairly consistent over the past 30 years, according to the College Board. College campuses are much more diverse than before, increasing from roughly a 20% minority student population in 1990, to 42% in 2012. Another layer of diversity has been added to college campuses through the increase of low-income, first-generation students, comprising over 24% of the undergraduate population, reports the Pell Institute. All these factors should create concern for college campuses.
Perhaps in the past, we could forego discussion about the future of college campuses, and, rather than focus on the minority or at-risk populations, continue focusing on the traditional students that college campuses serve. However, successful colleges campuses will shift focus to preparing for the future, and this future is now. Ethnically diverse college campuses with low-income and first-generation students can succeed if they provide the right academic and institutional support. The best news: This support is possible without major new funding.

The College of St. Joseph is a small, Catholic liberal arts college in central Vermont. Traditionally serving white Vermont students with minimal minority representation from other parts of New England, retention rates have in recent years fluctuated between 39% and 75%, in comparison with the 70% national retention rate. In the past four years, the college’s demography has shifted to an undergraduate student population that is 56% white, 30% black, and 14% Hispanic, many of whom are low-income, first-generation students. These students naturally come with a particular set of challenges that, without adjustment on the part of the institution, impede success.

Under the direction of its new president and with the efforts of faculty and staff, the college has undergone a transformation as it has adopted a new, more well-rounded approach to student success. By combining an innovative scholarship program with a strategic focus and institutional commitment to student success, the College of St. Joseph is engaging in the future of higher education.

The college’s commitment to accessibility is made apparent through its Provider Scholarship Program, which is based not exclusively on academic merit but rather on a student’s demonstrated intellectual curiosity, personal and professional growth and community engagement. Tuition, room and board charges are locked in over a student’s four years, while a student’s scholarship increases each year. In return, students are required to perform 15 hours of engaged community service, maintain a 2.0 GPA, participate in career preparation, and take part in one on-campus activity each semester.

Simultaneously, the Provider Program empowers students through engagement in the community. The Provider Scholarship Program currently involves 154 students, 77% of the full-time undergraduate population. Only two years in, Provider Program scholars have had a measurable impact upon the college’s Rutland, Vt. community. More than 7,400 service hours were logged in two years, and over 70% of students engaged in more than 15 hours of service each semester—a testament to the importance students place upon service to the community. Given CSJ’s student-body makeup, Provider scholars welcome the opportunity to give back. As one scholar said, “Each year is better than the last, as you begin to offer more of yourself to a cause greater than yourself.”

Students have completed service with a variety of agencies, collectively working to address the needs of the Rutland community. Their roles include teaching elementary school children how to compost, working with food distribution efforts, completing an entire renovation of a transitional apartment at the local women’s shelter, reading weekly to children, Bingo games with elderly residents, or cooking a meal at the transitional home for low-level offenders. Provider Program scholars are dedicated to transforming someone else’s life as they improve their own.

Student success as a community effort, requiring faculty and staff perspectives, has led to the restructuring of our First Year Experience (FYE) program, designed to help first-year students successfully adapt to the college campus and surrounding community. This has been a critical effort, given the vulnerability of first-year students during their first weeks of college, and the fact that statistically, they are more likely to withdraw from an institution between their first and second years of college. This new curriculum focuses on skill development such as time management, self-advocacy, forming allies with faculty and staff and, with the help of a first-year “Advocate,” choosing a career path. There is also crossover between our first-year experience program and the Provider Scholarship Program, as community service opportunities have been intentionally embedded in the curriculum.

Additionally, the college has a committee dedicated to looking at issues that affect student performance and success. The Student Success Committee, which includes faculty and staff representation from academics, athletics and student life, meets regularly to identify gaps and barriers to student success. The committee’s goal is to discuss items related to students’ needs and proactively implement data-driven plans of action to facilitate student success.

The college made institutional choices to support its efforts in retention and student success, and these choices were made with little impact on the budget. In 2013, the college instituted a “third space learning day” on Wednesday. Growing out the need for experiential learning, third space learning mixes traditional academics, student support and community service. The morning has the first-year experience course, a learning commons where all full-time faculty are required to hold office hours, an hour for student clubs and a community lunch. The afternoon is set aside for Provider activities, allowing all students to participate in community service. The cost to the college for this reorganization was zero: All it took was buy-in from faculty, staff and students looking for new ways to improve student success.

The college also has integrated student-focused service into its infrastructure. As a way to highlight food issues in America—an issue many of our lower-income students are familiar with—the college started the Provider Patch, now producing vegetables used in CSJ’s dining hall, as well as being donated to local organizations. Co-curricular activities, often seen as separate from college academics, are coordinated with classroom activities, providing students with opportunities to move from one learning space to another. The activities are driven by students, and implemented by the administration. These approaches will cost any college surprisingly little, but the rewards in retention, satisfaction and success are great.

This model is not for every small college; the College of St. Joseph is lucky to have a committed faculty and staff, impressive administrative support and vision, and a signature program in the Provider Scholarship for undergraduates. But for colleges serious about retention and success issues and lacking unlimited budgets, its framework of integrated learning communities and scholarships that reward where students arrive instead of where they have been is replicable. For innovative colleges, the future is now.

Leigh Cherry is student success facilitator at College of St. Joseph. Meggan Lloyd is community engagement coordinator at the college. Jonas Prida is associate vice president of curriculum and program development at the college.



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