Spotlight on Innovation: Learning Communities to Study First-Gen Student Success at Western Michigan

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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

Andrea Beach, Western Michigan University's director of faculty development, is the recipient of a $3.2 million First in the World grant. WMU has announced its intent to use the grant to help develop a "culture of degree completion and success," and I was excited to learn more about what that meant -- in very practical terms.

Building on the Kalamazoo Promise

First, a bit of the background story: In 2005, Kalamazoo, Michigan created the "Kalamazoo Promise," a fund intended to expand access and student success, and to foster local community and economic development. The fund covers tuition and fees for students graduating from Kalamazoo public schools. "The thought," Beach explains, "was to remove what is seen as one of the primary barriers to student success in college: finances."

But the students who are coming to WMU now are still struggling academically -- and socially. As many studies have demonstrated, financial need is not one of the only primary barriers to student success, particularly for first-generation students from lower-income backgrounds and from underperforming school districts. Addressing the other, non-financial barriers requires culture change within the institution. "What do we need to change to support students who are coming to us from the backgrounds that the Kalamazoo Promise represents?" Beach and her colleagues are asking. "Many of these students are not as adept at navigating the culture or the processes of the university."

"We keep asking students to adapt to the university; what are we doing as a university to adapt to the students’ needs? The philosophy of access has grown over the past 20 years among universities; access is a fundamental philosophical underpinning of higher education. But we haven’t changed our thinking about what success means. Access without support isn’t really access.”
Andrea Beach, WMU

To address this, Western Michigan University has brought together a project team -- and is using the grant funds to hire a full-time project manager to guide the team (all of the team members are assigned to the project only part-time; they each have other jobs at the institution) and to place student groups in one of two supplemental mentoring programs that the university will pilot and test.

Beach describes these supplemental mentoring programs as the first step in what is intended to be an effort at institution-wide transformation.

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