Spotlight on Innovation: Retaining First-Gen Students at UNC-Chapel Hill

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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 Lisa Cook, Academic Impressions

Percentages of first-generation students are rising at many institutions, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is taking an especially comprehensive approach to academic support for this growing and often challenged demographic. At AI, we're looking forward to watching their FITW-funded project develop over the next four years; if successful, it will provide other institutions with one possible model for a holistic and effective approach to supporting and retaining first-generation students.

Here's a first look at the challenge UNC-Chapel Hill is up against and how they’re innovating to address it.

The Challenge

At UNC-Chapel Hill, 20 percent of undergraduates are first-generation students who are half as likely to graduate college as their peers. First-generation students who transfer from a community college or major in a STEM field are at an even greater risk of dropping out.

"While nearly half of new transfers to Carolina express interest in majoring in STEM fields when they arrive, only a much smaller fraction actually manage to do so," explains Cynthia Demetriou, the university’s director of undergraduate retention and executive director of the Finish Line Project.

Because many first-generation students face a range of barriers to success, from cultural differences, competing work and family responsibilities, and lack of family support to insufficient academic preparation, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Finish Line Project will need to tackle the retention issue from several directions – and not just from the viewpoint of one office on campus.

The Initiative

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