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.

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

UNC’s Finish Line Project, funded by a $3 million First in the World grant, aims to improve retention for first-generation undergraduates by combining curricular innovations like redesigned STEM courses, transition courses to prepare students for UNC’s academic expectations, and intensive academic advising that begins before a student enrolls and continues throughout a student’s time at the university.

Abigail Panter, psychology professor, senior associate dean for undergraduate education, and the grant’s principal investigator, emphasizes, “We’re approaching the support of first-generation students from many different angles.” Specifically, the university is looking to add:

  • Curriculum mapping of community college STEM courses with UNC science courses
  • Gateway STEM course redesign to better engage first-generation students on real-world problems
  • Proactive, intensive advising and academic coaching throughout college
  • Individual and group tutoring in STEM content areas
  • Student Success seminars (e.g., transition courses, including Navigating the Research University, Learning to Learn, a Junior Transfer Seminar in which students complete a research project and present their results)
  • Faculty learning communities and professional development opportunities

Academic coaching is a key element of the initiative because it helps students set goals and shows them the roles and responsibilities of being a student. UNC’s ultimate goal is to have everyone on campus work from an academic coaching perspective, even if an individual works in other capacities. It’s one example of culture change they want to see across the entire institution. And when coaching becomes an approach that all faculty and staff are trained to use when working with undergraduates, that is both a more effective approach and a more cost-effective approach than hiring separate academic coaches.

Keys to Success

This won’t be a simple effort. To succeed, UNC-Chapel Hill will need to:

  • Engage faculty collaboratively in the work of gateway course redesign, rethinking pedagogy, and academic coaching
  • Design the added elements – such as transition courses and academic coaching – in ways that are sustainable and will last beyond the four years of the grant

Engaging faculty

To engage faculty deeply, UNC is developing faculty learning communities and the Finish Line Project includes partnership with UNC’s Center for Faculty Excellence. The objective is to empower faculty to rethink how courses can be structured to meet the learning needs of a diversifying student body. This is a process that has to be owned by the faculty themselves.

“We’re allowing these discussions to happen within departments and encouraging faculty to talk with each other,” Panter notes. Inviting faculty to brainstorm how to modify their pedagogy allows you to harness the collective brainpower of the institution to develop the best solutions—rather than imposing solutions from the outside.

“How a class is structured, especially in the sciences, can easily influence whether a student enrolls in the next course and has a positive view of the entire field of science or that discipline in science,” Panter adds. “Somewhere along the line, we really have to question why students are not wanting to stay in the sciences, what we are doing, what our model is, and what models attract talented students.”

The Finish Line project will encourage collaboration throughout the institution—not just between faculty.

Planning for the long term

Long-term sustainability will be vital to the success of the Finish Line Project is embedding sustainability, so the project’s leaders are planning from the outset to design and structure the new activities in ways that will allow them to last after the grant funding ends.

“We’re working on how do we change the

Why You Should Watch this Project

If successful, the Finish Line Project will serve as a viable and holistic model to help institutions position their growing populations of first-generation students for success without increasing expenses.