New UC coaching program breaks barriers for low-income, first-generation students

Financial struggles, homesickness, undecided majors, academic stress and learning how to navigate a new environment are all weighty issues many college students grapple within their first year.

But for first-generation students from low-income families, these struggles can sometimes mean the difference between graduating and dropping out. 

A new program launching this fall by the University of Cincinnati’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences aims to provide extra support for the growing number of A&S students who are the first in their families to attend college.

UC is teaming up with College Possible, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that helps low-income students prepare for and enroll in college, to be the first institution in Ohio to launch the organization’s Catalyze coaching program.

The initiative pairs first-generation A&S students who are Pell Grant recipients with “success coaches” — recent college graduates who mentor students as they navigate what can be a complicated college maze.

“Retention is important, and every student is important,” said Lisa Holstrom, the college’s senior assistant dean of academic services. “We’ve known that if we’re going to retain students, we need more resources. Therefore we needed to invest in this area.”

The program’s focus is on first-generation, Pell-eligible students, Holstrom said, because they are at greater statistical risk of dropping out.

Retention is important, and every student is important. We’ve known that if we’re going to retain students, we need more resources. Therefore we needed to invest in this area.

Lisa Holstrom

“The research shows that first-gen students are more likely to withdraw, more likely to take out too much loan money, and are more likely to perceive early struggles as signs that they don’t belong in college,” she said.  

Enter success coaches. Two coaches will be stationed at A&S, with another deployed to assist A&S-bound students at UC Blue Ash College. A fourth coach will be assigned to work with students awarded the Cincinnati Pride grant.   

The coaches won’t replace academic advisors, Holstrom is quick to point out. Rather, they will act more as mentors, showing first-generation students the ropes and providing them the same kind of guidance other non-first-generation students often receive from parents with firsthand college experience.

“These coaches will be reaching out weekly to students, asking them what’s going on, if they need help,” Holstrom explained.

For example, she said, “A lot of Pell-eligible students get caught in the federal government’s verification process, which is never-ending and overwhelming. They throw their hands up in the air and never complete it. Coaches can help them get to financial aid, translate the things they need to do and follow up with them.”

Coaches could remind students of upcoming academic registration deadlines or accompany students who may feel too intimidated to approach professors during office hours about their grades, she said.

The College Possible program is successful in large part, Holstrom says, due to its “near-peer” model. Students are better able to relate to coaches who are closer to their age and may share similar life experiences.  

“It’s a proven model that students in college tend to respond better to near-peers rather than someone who looks a lot like their mother or grandmother telling them what to do,” she said with a laugh. “They know the struggles personally. They know the pitfalls and how to help students avoid them.”

And avoiding the pitfalls, Holstrom says, helps level the college playing field for low-income, first-generation students to go on to achieve academic and professional success.



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