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May 5, 2014

HAYDEN: First-generation students hold key to state's future

INDIANAPOLIS — On the sprawling urban campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Zebulun Davenport has one of the more difficult jobs. A vice chancellor, he is tasked with putting together all the pieces needed to keep a diverse body of students in school long enough to graduate.

Based on history, most won’t. Less than 15 percent of IUPUI’s undergraduates earn a degree in four years; less than 40 percent will get one in six.

All of Indiana’s public colleges and universities have lower than desired graduation rates, though IUPUI faces some special challenges.

Many of its students are working to support themselves or family while attending college. And about 45 percent of IUPUI students fall in the category of “first generation” — the children of parents who never went to college or never finished.

It’s that first-generation demographic that may hold the key to Indiana’s future. A recent report by the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation found Indiana was in the bottom tier of states whose residents hold college degrees.

That puts us at a distinct disadvantage for attracting the high-skill, high-wage jobs needed to boost the state’s per capita income, which has been stagnant for a decade.

At IUPUI, and on other campuses around the state, university administrators like Davenport are accelerating their efforts to be more intentional about retaining and graduating students.

It’s been forced: The state Legislature has shifted more higher education dollars into performance-based funding, rewarding universities not just for getting students in the door but getting them out, a degree in hand.

Davenport is rightfully pleased by what he calls a cultural change on university campuses, as they move away from the disengaged model that said students were on their own to make it or break it.

“Struggle can build character,” Davenport told me. “But it takes a while before that character is built. And sometimes, it’s too late. We have too many students who look back and say, ‘I just couldn’t make it.’ ”  

The job of keeping students in school, though, can’t just rest with university administrators, alone.

Echoing the findings of the Lumina report — titled “A Stronger Nation through Higher Education” — Davenport argues community involvement is key to success. It takes churches and community groups, neighbors and family, he said, to support and encourage students to see their goal through to the end.

That support can come in the form of scholarships and financial aid to offset rising student debt loads, but it needn’t be that lavish. A roundtrip bus ticket for a weekend at home; $10 for a Sunday night dinner with friends; or even a simple phone call can mean a lot to a lonely student.

So much stands in the way of student success, Davenport said, including the sheer pressures of life that wear away the resilience needed to survive adversity.

He has seen firsthand how support can make the difference. His pregnant mother dropped out of school at 15, but never gave up the dream of being a schoolteacher. As a little boy, Davenport and his siblings sat in a college library while their determined mom took classes. She eventually earned two bachelor degrees before starting on her master’s.

But she didn’t do it on her own, Davenport said. She had three people — a husband, a best friend, and a benefactor in her community — who invested their time, love and money in her.

Davenport said it changed her world — and his. “It caused me and my brother and sister go to college. It will cause my children to go to college and their children to go to college and on and on,” he said. “One movement like that changes generations.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

 

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