Return to Program Profiles Alma College

The CIC/Walmart College Success Award provided the opportunity for Alma College to launch the First Generation Connections (FGC) program to enhance its existing framework for supporting student success. Through both peer and faculty mentoring, the program supported first-generation students as they transitioned academically and socially to campus life. The program educated students about the options and resources available to them and helped them develop their own individual plans.
 
Mentors helped students examine opportunities and select activities that met their needs, such as seeking academic support services, asking professors for help, participating in group study, or attending career events. Strategies included one-on-one, small group, and cohort meetings. Twenty-eight first-generation students entered the program during the first year of the grant and worked with eight faculty mentors and eight peer mentors (most were first-generation students themselves). Thirty-eight students were recruited during the second year of the grant along with 19 returning students.
 
Based on feedback from students, social activities were planned for the entire group during year two. Some of the successful events included pizza parties, cookie decorating, a faculty match dinner, pumpkin carving, and movie night. These events helped students develop closer relationships with faculty and peer mentors as well as fellow first-generation students—something that was considered vitally important for student success.
 
Also in the second year, the program developed an even greater focus on peer mentors and student relationships. The program had 13 peer mentors and nine faculty members for year two. To broaden the support students received with their career exploration, peer mentors were trained to assist with resume development and alumni networking. Another priority during the second year was to make a shift in student thinking so that students would acknowledge and embrace their first-generation identity.
 
The FGC program staff sent a newsletter to parents describing college resources. Presentations also were offered to parents to highlight resources and help them understand what their children were experiencing.


Program Outcomes

A key goal of the FGC program was increased retention. The retention rate of all first-year students who entered in 2009 and returned for their sophomore year was 79 percent, and the retention rate for those students returning for their junior year was 71 percent. In comparison, the retention rate of first-year, first-generation students who returned for their sophomore year was 69 percent; the retention rate for those students returning for their junior year was 55 percent. Once the FGC program began, retention of the first-generation students who participated in the program improved. For the entering class of 2010 (the first year of the program), the retention rate of FGC program students who returned for their sophomore year was 79 percent, and the rate for those who returned for their junior year was 72 percent. In comparison, the retention rates of all students who returned for their sophomore and junior years were 81 percent and 79 percent, respectively. For the entering class of 2011 (the second year of FGC), 81 percent of program participants returned for their sophomore year. This compares to all students who were retained at 81 percent.
 
Another key goal was improved academic performance. The FGC program was successful in closing the historic GPA gap between first-generation students’ academic performance and that of the general population. For example, for the class that entered in 2010, FGC program participants averaged a 2.92 GPA at the end of the fall term and a 2.94 GPA for the entire 2010–2011 academic year. These rates were comparable to the averages for all first-year students for that year, which were 2.91 (fall term) and 2.96 (academic year).  In 2011–2012, the program participants had a 3.09 GPA at the end of fall term and 2.93 for the academic year, while the general first-year population had averages of 3.06 and 2.91, respectively.
 
Improved career awareness was another outcome of the peer and alumni mentoring effort that was part of the program. A variety of activities provided many new experiences for participants and increased their social and cultural capital.


Program Update

Alma’s program will continue with new grant support and will be refined based on lessons learned from the grant. In addition, two full-time administrators will oversee the program. One will support students as they navigate the financial implications of college, and the other will be an associate vice president who has the responsibility of broadening access for students who are first-generation, low-income, and of diverse backgrounds. In 2011, the state of Michigan gave a $700,000 grant to Alma College to support its work with underprivileged and first-generation students. The King-Chavez-Parks Select Student Support Services Grant is designed to guide students toward a career. It also aims to connect the students with faculty, staff, and returning students from similar backgrounds.