Education Beat: Helping Colleges Keep First-year Students

Federal grants aren’t sexy, but they can make a difference when it comes to improving opportunities for student achievement, as two regional colleges hope to prove with the help of Title V funds.

The U.S. Department of Education granted nearly $50 million in Title V — Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program — monies to 77 colleges nationwide this month.

Here in Northern New Mexico, the Santa Fe Community College received $3.19 million, while Northern New Mexico College in Espanola got $6 million. (For the record, New Mexico State University at Alamogordo Community College, New Mexico State University at Carlsbad, and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Magdalena also received Title V funds.)

"These funds are critical for us to be able to provide services that will help our students graduate and help us develop new ways to help students succeed," said Jacqueline Virgint, vice-president for planning and institutional effectiveness at SFCC.

The money will go to help both SFCC and Northern retain first-year students. According to a 2009 US World and News Report, 30 percent of first-year college students drop out. SFCC’s Jill Douglass, associate vice-president in academic support and student retention, said the college will develop what she calls a first-year experience program to help students adjust and balance their course load.

"We’ll stay connected with them; do some intrusive checking in with them," she said. The Title V money will allow SFCC to hire new staff members, including a curriculum specialist.

While SFCC doesn’t necessarily see students dropping out within the first year, it does notice a lot of them "stopping out," as Virgint put it: In other words, taking a semester off, or doing part-time classes one semester and full-time classes the next semester, and ultimately taking three or four (or more) years to finish a two-year degree.

Both women said part of the problem here is that many first-timers may be working full-time jobs or caring for family members (including children). While neither woman wanted to put down New Mexico’s high schools, Virgint said, "Sometimes students are just not as prepared so they are trying to make up what they didn’t learn in high school."

David Trujillo, dean of grants and special initiatives at Northern, is more direct: "The fact is, our schools aren’t as good as they could be. They are not turning out students who are ready for college. And I am not picking on New Mexico. This is a national problem."

He said Northern will use the funds to systematically change how the university supports first-year students, including the implementation of an orientation outreach program to connect with prospective
college students while they are in high school.

The funds can also be used for a first-year experience counselor, to provide professional development for faculty and staff and developmental remedial education on a competency-based evaluation system, and to create a summer "bridge" program where high school graduates can start working with college staffers to prepare themselves for the first semester of college.

"It’s not about the money; it’s about the work the money allows us to do," he said.

SFCC has about 6,750 students enrolled; roughly 35 percent of whom are Hispanic. Northern has about 2,250 students; roughly 72 percent of whom are Hispanic.


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