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University of Central Arkansas grant aids transition to college

by Ryan Anderson | March 6, 2023 at 4:01 a.m.
Arkansas Hall on the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway is shown in this 2011 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

The University of Central Arkansas is increasing its efforts toward giving first-time, low-income students a litany of tools for success as they start their college careers, thanks to a $1.6 million grant through the Strengthening Institutions Program with the U.S. Department of Education.

"The first thing many people think low-income students need is money, and money helps, of course, but a lot of times what they really need most is know-how, what the issues are and where to seek help," said Julia Winden Fey, director of student success at UCA. "I was a low-income [student], and I know I appreciated that."

These students "can do the work -- we are confident they're capable -- but sometimes life gets in the way," said Nadia Eslinger, who will spearhead the new, five-year Bear Life program supported by the grant. "I've seen the benefits of counseling and tutoring, and if we can help [students] manage" crises that may manifest in their lives, they'll be more likely to remain in college and graduate.

Bear Life aims to decrease the achievement gap in retention and persistence rates for low-income students, improve their academic performance, and increase their sense of belonging, according to the university. The grant, which will operate as part of the UCA Office of Student Success, supports a counselor and administrative specialist, a part-time graduate assistant, and three undergraduate guides.

Undergraduate guides will give students an enrollment checklist during their senior year of high school and help them with the transition to college through a pre-advising session for summer orientation and academic registration (known as "SOAR") and success coaching, according to the university. In addition, the counselor and graduate assistant will offer coaching appointments at pivotal moments during freshman year.

"Bringing in extra staff to meet student needs" is a critical piece of this grant, and reaching high school seniors could pay significant dividends for all parties, said Winden Fey. "We may be able to reach some students who live in places where most students don't go to college and open a door for them to walk through."

"College is about a mindset that, 'I need to work hard, face failures, and overcome challenges,'" Eslinger said. "If we can [instill] that senior year of high school, it'll be helpful."

Staff members supported by this grant will be laser-focused on this particular population of students, rather than juggling multiple jobs, said Eslinger, who began her duties as Bear Life program director in January. For example, the counselor -- who will have professional training, skills, and background -- will work individually with students and adroitly address a wide range of their questions and concerns.

To receive the grant award, UCA submitted a 50-page proposal that detailed retention and success rates for low-income undergraduates, addressed strengths and areas for improvement in their support of these students, and provided a detailed outline and timeline for those services, according to UCA. Students will be able to receive support through an online community, and the Bear Life initiative will provide funding for 50 low-income students to participate in a summer bridge program at UCA.

"We expect the first cohort on campus this summer," and bringing students to campus the summer before their freshmen year has long proved instrumental to success, Winden Fey said. "We have a very high retention rate with students who come to summer orientation," but that can be a challenge, especially for low-income students.

Joining the online community with peers will answer questions, assuage concerns, and make them feel they belong, Eslinger said. Getting on campus during the summer will also aid in that endeavor and "prepare them for a smooth transition."

"UCA feels like a small place to those of us who have been here a long time, [because] we know everybody," but for some Arkansans from sparsely populated, rural areas, UCA is larger than their hometowns, she said. "We want them to find their place and feel like UCA is a second home, not like they've been lost in the mix."

For career exploration, the program will provide all participants with one-on-one career counseling sessions, notices of internship and job-shadowing opportunities with the Office of Cooperative Education, and a workshop series, according to UCA. Each year, the program will also fund 20 micro-internships for students entering their sophomore year and whose interests align with in-demand industry sectors as defined in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014.

These micro-internships -- and internships in general -- provide students networking opportunities in the Conway and Central Arkansas community, said Eslinger, who previously spent five years as the associate director of the UCA Office of Student Success. "Students can see [career] opportunities in Conway and Central Arkansas that'll help them stay in the area if they want."

The school will also conduct a workshop series on financial wellness, where students will learn about interest on student loans, managing a bank account, budgeting, and campus resources like emergency grants, loans, and the university's food pantry, according Winden Fey. "We felt a financial literacy component was especially important with this group, because money is just not a topic in many low-income households -- it wasn't in mine growing up."

"Families don't talk about it, so it's hard to get a grasp on good financial practices," she added. For example, "we're seeing students -- and this is a national trend -- who don't want to take out student loans, so they're putting [tuitions, fees, etc.] on their credit card, because they don't understand credit card debt is so much worse than student loan debt."

Students feel liberated when they leave for college, but they don't always recognize they have to live within their means, Eslinger said. Not only do they need to manage their resources compared with expenses, but -- if possible -- "try to save" for the proverbial rainy day.

The grant will also provide continuing professional development for faculty and staff so they understand the "needs and concerns of our low-income students," she said. "More people need to be aware of their challenges" so they can help students and direct them toward resources.

The low-income students who will be the focus of these new initiatives are a significant part of UCA's student body, with low-income or Pell grant-eligible -- federal Pell grants, which generally don't need to be repaid, are usually are awarded to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need -- students comprising more than 40% of the university's enrollment, and as is the case with most colleges and universities, there is an achievement gap between Pell-eligible and non-Pell students, with about a six percentage point gap in retention rate and a roughly 20% gap in graduation rate at UCA, Winden Fey said.

"We hope we can reduce that gap with these services and" retain more students from freshmen to sophomore years, because "if you can't retain them after the [first year], you can't get them through [to graduation]," Winden Fey said.

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