Monday, February 11, 2008


Eastern Advantage

Article in this mornings Spokesman profiling new program EWU has started to help more first-generation students attend college. 'Eastern Advantage' is especially important considering the growing competition among the regional colleges to maintain strong enrollment numbers. Here's the story:

EWU expands effort to help first-generation students
Shawn Vestal
Staff writer
February 11, 2008

In the middle of his freshman year, Carlo Calvillo was ready to drop out of Eastern Washington University and return to Tonasket.

College was a stressful, foreign environment. Money was tight. He missed his mom and feared that his younger brother and sister needed him. "Maybe I should give up this dream," Calvillo thought.

"I was really debating whether to go home and get a job."

A lot of students in his shoes do just that. Among so-called first-generation college students, those whose parents didn't go to college, the dropout rate is almost three times that of students whose parents are college graduates.

Calvillo, though, is a part of Washington Achievers, a Gates Foundation program that provides scholarship money and a network of supportive tutors and mentors to help negotiate the world of college. He had a place to go for advice and encouragement, and now he's a junior studying pre-med in Cheney.

EWU is preparing to add scholarships and mentoring support for 250 first-generation students under a new initiative that will be merged with the Gates program. The program is part of a $7 million statewide expansion of college services for low-income and first-generation students. Washington State University, for example, is expanding the number of students who will get grants and support services by 250.

With college and public officials trying to drive up the number of college graduates and improve access to education for poor and minority students, they say that ensuring first-generation kids succeed is key.

The new program, Eastern Advantage, will give $1,500 scholarships and begin the process of mentoring students when they're juniors in high school. A key component of such programs is an effort to make all aspects of college life – from financial aid to the cafeteria to time management – familiar and comfortable. "Just negotiating some of the regular functions of university life – office hours, the syllabus, the office of financial aid. … It's a whole new world," said Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted, vice president for student affairs at EWU.

'Thorny bureaucracies'

Francisco Salinas, director of student support services at WSU, recalls coming across a "ridiculous" and disheartening statistic a few years back: The single biggest predictive factor in whether a high school student goes to college was whether his or her parents had done so.

"There's a cumulative story that happens with students," he said. "If a parent went to college, not only do they have a relationship with an institution, but an understanding of university life. The student has to navigate some thorny bureaucracies. … Having a parent who has gone through that can demystify the process."

Research shows that first-generation students struggle in virtually every measure of college success. A National Center for Education Statistics study in 2005 examined a wide range of data from the 1990s.

"The findings from this report indicate that compared with students whose parents attended college, first-generation students consistently remained at a disadvantage after entering postsecondary education: they completed fewer credits, took fewer academic courses, earned lower grades, needed more remedial assistance, and were more likely to withdraw from or repeat courses they attempted," the report says.

During those years the report examined, 23.5 percent of first-generation students who enrolled in college graduated. Of those whose parents had degrees, 67.5 percent did.

Various college and federal programs already are in place to help "disadvantaged students," including a range of federal services known as TRIO programs.

Some are targeted to certain populations. UI's College Assistance Migrant Program provides financial aid and a support network for 35 students a year who come from the families of migrant workers.

Yolanda Bisbee, program director, said that since 1999, 69 CAMP students have graduated from the UI, including engineers and future doctors. She said the program offers counseling, required study sessions, advice for managing time and close monitoring of academic progress. If students fall behind or perform poorly in class, they get immediate help.

It's the kind of thing that a lot of students could use, she said.

"All freshmen should have a program like this," she said.

'Kind of scary'

Amber Rhodes, a 23-year-old EWU graduate, was a Washington Achievers scholar and is now a mentor for the program at Eastern. She grew up in Spokane, and while her mother encouraged her to attend college, there wasn't the money to pay for it.

She won the Washington Achievers scholarship her senior year at West Valley High School. The program isn't specific to EWU, and it gave her the chance to visit several campuses before making a decision – another advantage in terms of preparation.

"It was kind of scary just starting at a university," she said. "I couldn't really ask anyone in my family about it."

The new Eastern Advantage program will follow the guidelines of the Achievers program, but expand it significantly – adding 250 students to the roughly 200 Achievers. One key part of the new program will be that it accepts applications from high school juniors, and provides campus visits and academic preparation before the freshman year begins.

Zeisler-Vralsted said that in the seven years since the Gates Foundation program started, it's had lower dropout rates and higher graduation rates than the general student population.

"Their overall six-year graduation rates are significantly higher than our traditional Eastern student," Zeisler-Vralsted said. "It works."

Calvillo said one of the key benefits of the program is providing a clear motivation for students who may not have one at home.

"I want to show younger kids, not only underprivileged but undermotivated kids, that they can do it," he said.

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