Appalachian eases transition to higher education for first-gen students

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The Appalachian Online

The Appalachian

Appalachian State University eases the transition to higher education for first-generation college students through programs like ACCESS and Student Support Services.

ACCESS, an acronym for Appalachian Commitment to College Education for Student Success, is a university endowment scholarship that ensures a debt-free education to students from low-income families. With a similar goal, SSS is a federally-funded program that assists exclusively first generation, low-income students in receiving a post-secondary degree.

Both ACCESS and SSS provide resources geared toward the retention of first generation or low-income students. These include workshops, study halls, work study, mandated advising and graduate student mentors.

Hank Foreman, the senior associate vice chancellor for University Advancement said there are 369 first generation college students in the most recent freshman class, representing 12 percent of a 3,033 class.

“Getting here is the first generation students’ biggest hurdle, staying here is among the many challenges they face,” said Emily Simpson, an ACCESS program mentor. “They don’t have someone who has been through it.”

Simpson said things like FAFSA, college classes and internships can be foreign to first generation students.

“That’s where the graduate student mentors come in,” she said. “We can relate to the students. We’ve gone through it.”

Adam Warren, an ACCESS advisor and Cathia Silver, the Director of Student Support Services agreed that a lack of financial support from home was a common challenge.

“Financial support can even impact their social lives, the things that other students are able to do, aren’t necessarily ‘a thing’ for these students,” Warren said. “Five bucks to go to an event for one student is nothing, whereas for an ACCESS or SSS student, you have to budget that.”

SSS, in contrast to ACCESS does not completely cover tuition costs. However, the program aids students in finding scholarships and opportunities to assist with payment.

“Most first generation students rely on financial aid which often includes carrying a huge loan burden and therefore many work part time jobs to make ends meet,” Silver said. “Working in school can be positive, but it is the stress and the overall financial situation that can be difficult for first generation students.”

A work study is available to students in both programs as long as their family income meets federal guidelines.

There are limits to how many hours these students can work per week, specifically to reinforce a focus on academics.

For first semester freshmen in both programs, it is required that they attend weekly study halls. Students in both programs have a wealth of resources at their fingertips for academic support including LEAD tutoring.

The academic assistance offered to these students is well reflected in the two programs’ annual reports. For spring 2014, the average grade point average for all 202 ACCESS students was a 3.18. At the end of fall 2014, 92 percent of 200 SSS students were in good academic standing.

“These programs level the playing field for students,” Simpson said. “They create a drive to succeed, especially with all the support offered.”

Despite the challenges, Foreman said the first to second year retention rate for first generation students was 85 percent in fall 2013, compared a total 88 percent for the class as whole.

“For first generation students, it is an honor and a privilege to be the first in their family to attend college,” Silver said. “They are unique, creative and resilient. They have a strong work ethic, they are proud of their heritage and they are diverse. They are independent, they are involved in this university community, and they care about giving back and helping others.”

Story: Jordan Boles, Intern News Reporter