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Does Extra Help For First-Generation College Students Boost Grad Rates?

NLU flooded its undergraduates with financial, academic and personal supports. Is it making a difference?

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Quetzali Garcia is graduating from National Louis University on June 15. She’s one of the first students to finish an undergraduate program that’s geared toward helping first-generation college and low-income students make it through college.

Kate McGee

When Quetzali Garcia graduated from a Chicago public high school, she didn’t think college was for her. Her high school counselor suggested she’d be better off at a two-year school, despite her goals.

“They never asked what I actually want to do … what am I interested in majoring in,” Garcia remembered. “She never asked me, ‘Oh, you want to be a teacher? Here’s a good school for you.’”

So she started working at a fast-food restaurant.

But that was short-lived.

“I [was] like, ‘Yup, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I’m going to school,’” Garcia remembered earlier this week.

No one in Garcia’s family had attended college, but she and her mother eventually stumbled upon National Louis University, a small commuter school on Michigan Avenue across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Garcia said she liked the small class sizes, and staff members quickly learned her name.

“If you don’t show up to class, they’ll text you,” she said.

Garcia is one of 85 students in the first class of NLU’s Pathways undergraduate program, which started four years ago. Previously, NLU mostly served graduate students. The first class graduates on Saturday.

Elsewhere, similar programs that target first-generation college and low-income students are offered for a subset of students at two- and four-year schools. NLU stands apart because every first-time undergraduate student participates.

Success coaches and a food pantry

The first thing National Louis did to open the door for first-generation students was make college affordable. It set tuition at $10,000 per year, allowing students who receive federal and state financial aid to essentially go for free. It relies on philanthropic support to keep the tuition low. The academic requirements are low, too. Students with a 2.0 GPA or higher can get in.

The program quickly gained popularity among Chicago Public School graduates.

“We’re actually now the fourth most frequently attended four-year college of CPS graduates,” said Aarti Dhupelia, head of strategic initiatives at NLU. “We weren’t even serving CPS graduates right out of high school four years ago.”

Next, NLU flooded students with concrete supports, including a student success coach and career counseling, including a required internship. The coach and professors are trained to intervene quickly when they see like a missed assignment or a student acting differently in class.

Senior Sierra Walker said her coach provides solutions to problems that could’ve stopped her from finishing.

“Friends and family say, ‘Sierra go, go, you can do this.’ [My success coach is] there [saying] ‘Go, go, go, but also here’s a list of things I can do to aid you,’” Walker said. “That’s really important to me.”

Over the years, the school has added a food pantry, an emergency fund to help students with unexpected costs and scholarships to help students who need an extra boost to cover tuition. They also expanded the program to their campus in Wheeling. Now, they have more than 1,200 students enrolled, the majority Latino.

What will it take?

Even with all the extra supports, just 20 of the 85 students in that first class will walk across the stage on Saturday. Ten more are expected to graduate within the next year. Colleges and universities measure graduation rates over six years.

NLU sees these initial numbers as progress. But statistically, the projected 35% graduation rate is about the same as the graduation rate among similar Chicago Public Schools students who attend other four-year colleges.

It begs the question: How much difference do these intensive supports really make?

Dhupelia with National Louis said they believe the supports added since the program began four years ago will boost graduation rates in future years, even as enrollment grows.

“We always think we have opportunities to learn and improve, but we’re really proud of what we’ve done so far,” she said. “We think that many of our students wouldn’t have been able to attend a bachelor’s degree program at all were it not for affordability and access and may not have persisted and completed without the support we’re providing.”

They’re also looking for ways to increase the number of African American students who enroll. Right now, 71% of students are Latino and many of the high schools with the highest number of enrollees are predominantly Hispanic.

Dhupelia said more students need opportunities to attend and succeed at four-year schools. Often, students with GPAs under 3.0 are steered toward two-year schools.

That rings true for Garcia. She remembers the college advisor at her high school told her and her classmates they were better off going to a community college.

Garcia said she felt her options were limited by assumptions based on her background.

“I’m first-generation, I didn’t know how college is, how it works,” Garcia said. “It made me feel bad. I’m like, ‘I’m not going to make it. I’m not worth going to college.’”

But at National Louis, she was able to prove people wrong.

“Four years later, and I’m about to graduate,” she said proudly.

While Garcia thrived, many in this first class will not be graduating on Saturday. All these supports couldn’t overcome the challenging realities these students face.

National Louis has figured out the front end of the formula — how to get this group of students through the door. But they’re still working out what more can be done to increase the number of students who cross the stage as graduates every year.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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