Spotlight on Innovation: How the University of Minnesota is Building Collaborative Partnerships to Improve Retention of First-Gen Students

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The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar "First in the World" grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

by Daniel Fusch, Academic Impressions

Geoffrey (Geoff) Maruyama, the department chair of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, has an intriguing -- and direct -- way of explaining the challenges faced in improving the academic success and persistence of under-represented and lower-income students. He cites Urie Bronfenbrenner's research on the ecology of human development.

Transformative Learning for First-Generation Students

"Kids grow up in a lot of different ecosystems," Maruyama notes. "To the extent to which those ecosystems are aligned, life is simple. When you have a bigger transition, however, it gets more complicated. First-generation students are less likely to have grown up in a culture with strong links to higher education, making the transition to a college environment a more significant change."

A lot of professionals in higher education are discussing how best to bridge the gap between high school and college; for Geoff Maruyama, the critical gap is between college culture and the culture of the community.

"We need to make connections back from the college to the community. It's critical that first-generation students and their families see the connection between their learning and their community. Often, these students arrive at college with idealism: they are going to get an education and then solve the world's problems. But they don't see immediate connection between the classes they're taking and world problems...or their community's problems."
Geoff Maruyama, U of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Maruyama's commitment is to making classroom learning relevant and active through integrating volunteerism, service learning, and civic engagement. This is a direction he feels will not only benefit first-generation students -- by empowering them to achieve and apply their learning within the context of their own communities -- but will benefit all students, by providing occasion for the examination of privilege and for translating classroom learning into real-world activity.

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