COVINGTON, Ky. – Willnesha Williams had trouble getting out of her own way at Holmes High School.
"Freshman year, I always got in trouble with my mouth. It was not about me fighting or anything. I just had a problem with authority," she said.
Williams was shipped off for parts of her sophomore and junior years to Covington's alternative school – first for mouthing off to teachers and staff, second for sending threatening tweets to a classmate and, finally, for getting caught with students who were smoking marijuana – though she was not smoking it. Her run-ins jeopardized an otherwise promising academic career.
But with a lot of tough love from school and home, she gradually realized that teachers and principals were fighting for her and not against her, and she got back on track to graduate near the top of her class last spring from Holmes.
Williams leaves for Kentucky State University this month, where she plans to major in pre-med on her way to becoming a pediatrician. A volleyball scholarship and $12,000 in financial aid will help her afford the steep cost of college.
Statistically, though, she has an uphill climb to graduate. A sobering 89 percent of first-generation college students from low-income families like Williams' fail to graduate within six years of enrollment, compared to 45 percent of the general college population.
"High school graduation doesn't necessarily mean you're ready for college," said Sheri Ranis, program director at Lumina Foundation , the nation's largest private foundation dedicated to boosting college graduation rates, especially among at-risk students.
She said first-generation students have challenges that those from families familiar with college don't.
"College can be difficult to adjust to for many kinds of students no matter how well-prepared they were," Ranis said. "First-generation students have less context and no one to confide in or express their concerns with. At some institutions there are many more students than individuals who can help them."
While many colleges are well-equipped to deal with students who seek help at counseling centers and careers centers, that only solves part of the problem. "What's harder to do is to find those who are feeling isolated or alone. They languish," she said.
Lumina has honed a five-point plan to boost graduation rates:
• Ensure high quality learning by laying out the fastest most efficient ways to fulfill requirements
• Build partnerships with K-12 schools, including college credit courses in high school, and businesses
• Provide comprehensive support like an emergency fund, astute tutoring and coaching services
• Monitor student progress and act on identified problems.
• Prioritize student access to transportation, child care, extended hours for administrative buildings and class buildings.
Tri-State universities and colleges are working on more ways to shepherd first-generation, low-income and other "at risk" students through to graduation as federal officials press schools to improve retention and graduation rates.
UC's focus on first-generation students
University of Cincinnati, where one in three students is the first in his or her family to go to college, has found early success with its Gen-1 House , a dormitory dedicated solely to first-generation students who are eligible to receive Pell grants. About 90 percent of Gen-1 residents graduated from Cincinnati Public Schools.
Residents commit to a curfew, working outside jobs no more than 20 hours a week and to maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average freshman year and 3.0 thereafter. Students participate in group studying, one-on-one tutoring and community building exercises meant to establish a sense of belonging.
"The concept is that all students are working together. If you have some type of social bonds, you're more likely to be able to navigate college life," Christina Black, Gen-1 program specialist.
Black and other staff and upper-classmen make sure students get to know the lay of the land with in-house orientations as well as pointing them to services available to all UC students like the Learning Assistance Center .
All residents of the house are given housing subsidies and free UC health care if they don't already have insurance. The program expanded from freshman-only residence to all classes in 2010.
The result? More than 90 percent of each class since the second year that Gen-1 started have returned for their second year of classes. The six-year graduation rate for the first Gen-1 participants was 25 percent, but thanks in large part to multiple-year residence instituted in 2010, rates are projected to soar to 84 percent by 2017.
"We're on track to exceed UC's overall graduation rate," Black said, referring to UC's six-year graduation rate of 55 percent.
Gen-1 has served about 200 students, which is about 1 percent of first-generation students who attend UC. Black said the Gen-1 model would not be scalable to serve all first-generation students because of the emphasis on creating
a small community feeling, but UC is deploying some aspects of the program to serve a much larger pool of students.
NKU's early-warning system
Northern Kentucky University President Geoffrey Mearns has repeatedly said that his university's retention rates that have hovered below 70 percent for several years and its six-year graduation rate around 35 percent are unacceptably low. Like UC, one in three NKU students is a first-generation college participant.
The school rolled out a program called MAP-Works , an electronic survey that all first- and second-year students are required to fill out. The survey identifies students who are in trouble academically or otherwise, giving NKU an early warning. "Rather than just waiting for students to identify themselves, this really helps us to do early interventions," Mearns said.
The school also throws a variety of other resources at the retention and graduation problem, including:
• NKU R.O.C.K.S , a program for African American students that includes pairing freshmen with older mentor students and a five-day summer orientation.
• The federal TRIO program , which serves low-income students, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities.
• Its recently built Student Success Center consolidated all of the student services from career counseling to paying for classes to ensure students had no trouble finding everything they need.
While Mearns said NKU has a long way to go, he does expect the retention rate to top 70 percent this year, and six-year graduation rates have risen from about 30 percent to about 35 percent.
We're also trying to encourage philanthropic investments in these kinds of programs," he said. "I am pleased with the progress we're making, but we can and will do more."
Thomas More's investment
Thomas More College is capitalizing on an anonymous $4 million matching grant announced in June to expand its Thomas More Success Center, including more money invested in tutoring, academic counseling and persistence counseling that includes intensive monitoring of at-risk students. The school got its first major match this month when the school announced a $500,000 gift from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. US Bank Foundation.
President David Armstrong said smaller schools have an advantage for first-generation students to be part of the community. "Students who attend smaller schools have a better chance of succeeding at a smaller school because c of the support they’ll get," he said. " For anybody who gets accepted, you want to provide all the support you can for that student. You want strong advising programs and to continuously give student support "
Xavier University has used its federal TRIO program to great success in the last 13 years, Trio Director Amy Reed said.
About 95 percent of students involved in Trio return for their sophomore years compared to a campus-wide 83 percent average. Six-year graduation rates for Trio students are 74 percent compared to XU's average of 76 percent.
"We give a lot of individualized attention to those students," Reed said. "It really is about the care we show them. Now, care can mean we have to kick them in the rear sometimes and sometimes it's a shoulder to cry on. They know that we care even when they don't want to hear it."
Reed, who has worked with Trio students at XU since 2002, said the disadvantages that many first-generation students have starts with money. "A lot of times it's money, but I think it goes deeper than that. A lack of family support is definitely one barrier. They may come from schools that aren't preparing students as well for college, and they're coming in behind the other students," she said.
As for Wilneesha Williams, she attended an orientation at Kentucky State in June hosted in part by upperclassmen. "They made me feel so comfortable. They let us know that they are just like us," she said. A counselor – who recently transferred to another school – corresponded with her since last year. "She was wonderful. She always replied to my emails the same day," Williams said.
She plans to use the degree she earns there to work her way out of the Covington neighborhood where she has seen two friends shot dead – Desean Peterson, a 20-year-old Holmes dropout killed last October, and Samantha Ramsey, a 19-year-old Holmes graduate killed by a Boone County sheriff's deputy in April.
"I think that I'm motivated enough now that if when I get there I'll be fine," she said.