Improve first-generation student success with insights from the University of Florida

Institutions across North America are seeing a growing number of first-generation college students on campus and demographic data predicts a continued growth of this student population. First-generation students bring valuable strengths, experiences, and perspectives to campus—but many face financial or other barriers that deter them from enrolling or completing their degree. As a result, many institutions have recognized the need to rethink their support and engagement practices to better leverage their strengths and address their needs.

We have seen a growth in efforts across institutions to experiment with various support mechanisms and programs, but few have found paralleled success to the University of Florida’s Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program (MFOS). MFOS is a scholarship and support program for nearly 1,200 undergraduate students at the University of Florida (UF). The program has stellar outcomes, with a 97% retention rate and an 86% six-year graduation rate. So far, the program has 2,200 alumni who have earned bachelor’s degrees as a result of UF’s commitment to this group.

MFOS is a comprehensive program that combines social, academic, and financial support for first-gen students. The state and university have invested heavily in this effort, but even without that level of investment, other institutions can learn from what UF is doing. Some lessons that can inform efforts at other institutions looking to improve their support for first-generation college students.

Machen Scholars take part in a support program that includes peer mentoring, financial literacy education, leadership development, and career planning guidance. The program helps first-generation college students recognize the strengths they bring to the university and builds on this knowledge with the skills and support they need to succeed. Program Director Dr. Leslie Pendleton shared some of the key components that make this program so impactful.

This cohort of undeclared freshmen had a 70% persistence rate into their sophomore year

Financial support goes beyond financial aid

MFOS is a scholarship program and places a strong focus on financial literacy to help students navigate financial challenges that can get in the way of student success. The financial literacy component is critical to the long-term development and success of students after college. As the program emphasizes, there must be a marriage of financial support and “support support ”—it can’t be just one or the other.

There are two mandatory financial literacy workshops in their first year. They focus on how to be financially savvy as college students (e.g. how to make the lump sum of money they receive at the beginning of the year last), and on broader skills such as budgeting, identity theft, and employment benefits.

Build a community support network on campus

Beyond academic and financial challenges, many first-generation college students struggle to find a sense of belonging on campus, and a community of support. MFOS works hard from the time students arrive on campus to proactively build connections and relationships with students, nurturing a sense of belonging and support, and makes it easier to identify challenges or the requisite for resources as needed.

A MFOS staff member holds a one-on-one check-in with every new student at the beginning of the year. Though a heavy lift for a relatively small team, creating this initial personal connection sets the stage for further engagement and support as students persist on campus. Since starting this practice, staff say students are more connected, asking more questions, and reaching out for support more often. They encourage students in these meetings to see them as a resource as they navigate the complexities of the university—to reach out to them as a resource to help them problem-solve, whatever the issue.

All students are also assigned a peer mentor, generally an upperclassman in the program. Mentors are accessible, relatable, and create a sense of community for students on campus by planning events with other mentors and reaching out to offer support.

Alumni connection provide support across and beyond the college experience

Alumni are an excellent resource to leverage in building a sense of community among students alongside providing career and general guidance. UF has made robust efforts to connect current students to program alumni, to allow for them to connect and build relationships. Just a few of the ways they do this are:

  • An alumni map (with contact information) on the website
  • A LinkedIn group for both alumni and current students
  • Alumni talks (four per semester) featuring various industries and career paths, addressing key professional challenges they’ve faced, as well as more personal ones, including family relationships

You can find more information about the MFOS Program on their website.

More ways to get all students to graduation

The D grade, fail, and withdraw (DFW) rate at a typical institution is between 15-30%, costing students and institutions money.

Our brief details how to audit your courses to discover those with habitually low completion rates and four strategies to reduce the unproductive credit rate for students.

Four Strategies to Combat Costs

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