A March Department of Education report highlighted the University of La Verne as an exemplary school for low-income students.
ULV joins other private institutions such as Converse College in South Carolina, Agnes Scott College in Georgia and the Sage Colleges in New York as private institutions that have more than 40 percent Pell Grant recipients, with half of those recipients graduating in less than six years.
Pell Grants are need-based federal financial aid awards.
At ULV, more than 60 percent of students receive Pell Grants, with 63 percent graduating in less than six years.
“Serving all students, and in this case low-income students who are receiving federal funds, that’s part of our mission. That’s part of who we are, and we’re proud of that,” ULV President Devorah Lieberman said.
Students with high-income parents are nearly three times more likely to attend college compared to those with low-income parents, according to the Department of Education report. ULV allocates much of its financial aid resources to fix that gap.
“I think overall La Verne is doing really well compared with their peer institutions in helping students keep the costs low,” Assistant Director of Financial Aid Karen Lang said.
On top of about $63 million in annual federal and state aid, ULV’s internal budget designates an additional $43 million to $45 million annually for need-based aid.
At La Verne, 93 percent of students receive some level of institutional aid, with 73 percent of that aid being need-based.
“We could take a different philosophy, we could say ‘No, it’s 50 percent,’ but we are purposely trying to assist low-income students in having a private four-year education,” Associate Provost Beatriz Gonzalez said. “I’m proud of that philosophy, I think not all schools look at it that way.”
Only about half of students who receive Pell Grants manage to graduate in less than six years, according to the report. That is because although money is the key resource, it is not the only resource necessary for low-income students’ success.
“It’s not just the financial aid that’s helping these students be able to graduate on time,” Lang said. “It’s all of the academic support that’s here at the University, the academic advising team, all of the faculty. We could give them all the money, we could give them free tuition, but if they don’t have those other support services to help them, they wouldn’t probably graduate on time.”
The First Generation Student Success Program is one such initiative aiming to provide the support services to students.
“I do see a lot of the students that come in and they are from a lower socioeconomic background,” said Nancy Reyes, assistant director of first generation and multicultural programs. “It’s not necessarily that they don’t have the skills to succeed, it’s more of a lack of access to resources.”
The First Generation Student Success Program aims to make on-campus resources like the Academic Success Center for tutoring or the Multicultural Center for inclusion accessible to first generation students. Another possible explanation for the gap between low and high-income families is the education of the parents.
In the case of some first generation students, parents might have educational backgrounds that only reach elementary school level.
“That affects the students in that they don’t know what kinds of questions to ask,” Reyes said. “They don’t know anything about financial aid, they don’t know anything about the college process, so the student’s really left alone to fend for themselves. As first generation students they don’t really know who to go to for help or ask for help. Asking for help is something that is very difficult.”
Although the University currently finds itself on the right side of the low-income conversation, administrators hope to make significant strides in bolstering low-income student retention even further.
One way to do that is for the First Generation Student Success Program to give departments a chance to collaborate, Reyes said.
“Sometimes departments try to reinvent the wheel instead of working together,” she said. “We’re definitely working with career services, we’re definitely trying to work more with the Academic Success Center, even the library with the workshops they offer. We’re not just advocating for ourselves and our own departments, but really publicizing all the other departments as a unit.”
Another key aspect to keeping retention rates high is student involvement on campus. Research suggests the earlier a student gets involved, the better.
“Retention literature suggests that the first six weeks of a college freshman’s fall semester is probably the most critical time for students to either connect or feel disenfranchised from a particular campus,” said Carlos Cervantes, associate dean of academic support and retention services. “If you look at the process from recruitment to the moment that they step onto campus for orientation, there are multiple opportunities for the institution to make those connections and to relay that message to them.”
The University also places great importance on developing strong relationships with faculty advisers as a means to higher retention rates.
An email survey conducted last spring by the academic advising office found that three out of four student respondents reported meeting with their faculty advisers at least three times in a semester, meaning that students meet with their advisers more than the single meeting required for the following semester’s registration process.
“It’s validating to see that the work that is occurring is being recognized,” Cervantes said. “The nice thing, though, is that we don’t rest on our laurels. We want to increase the number of students that persist and that graduate. I think students can do it, and I think La Verne can do it as well.”
Des Delgadillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.