U.S. Department of Education funds First-Generation Projects

On September 30, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $75 million to 24 colleges and universities under its new “First in the World (FITW)” grant program.

By supporting and funding innovative projects, the Obama administration hopes to increase college access and improve student learning. FITW was announced in May as part of President Obama’s agenda to boost college access and completion rates.

The U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan describes the initiative:

“The First in the World grant competition is a key part of President Obama’s agenda to foster innovative ideas that help keep college affordable, increase quality and improve educational outcomes for our students. The Department is proud to support the wide range of innovation at colleges and universities across the nation that can dramatically enhance student outcomes.”

24 colleges and universities were selected this year after a rigorous selection process, which included nearly 500 applications. 17 states, 19 public, private, and nonprofit 4-year institutions and five public and private two-year institutions were selected. Six of the grantees are minority-serving institutions (MSIs), which means an additional $20 million in funding for each. Many of the grantees have a variety of partners beyond their institution, which means FITW could have a wide reach throughout higher education. The 24 projects all sound promising, but some stood out as most promising for first-generation and low-income students.

  • Kennesaw State University: Its $3.2 million grant will support the Transfer Advocacy Gateway, a new program that seeks to streamline the transfer process for students from 2-year colleges. The program will combine the areas of enrollment services, advising, and academic support and plans to serve 4,000 transfer students over the period of the grant. It is intended to be a one-stop shop for transfer students where they can find the support of peer mentors, transfer advisors, transfer graduation coaches, and enrollment services specialists. Nationwide, 7.7 million undergraduates attend community colleges, but few transfer to 4-year institutions.
  • Lee College: Its $2.7 million grant will be used to fund a new “Weekend College.” The Weekend College will offer four, accelerated associate of arts and associate of applied sciences degree programs for full-time students. Classes will be held on Friday evenings and Saturdays, with block scheduling and options of both online and in-person classroom instruction. The flexibility of the Weekend College could boost enrollment among working students.
  • LaGuardia Community College: Its $2.9 million grant will be used to launch project COMPLETA, Comprehensive Support for Student Success, which will strengthen academic and co-curricular engagement from point of admission throughout the first college year and beyond. Some core tenets are:
  • Rethink the first year seminar: To address the difficulty low-income, first-generation, and minority students have in transitioning to college, LaGuardia will create a required, credit-bearing First Year Seminar, which will include intensive advising and peer mentoring.
  • Transform advising for all students: LaGuardia’s Center for Teaching and learning will train teams of faculty, staff, and peer mentors to activate a comprehensive and shared model of advisement. LaGuardia’s is the most comprehensive and innovative project I saw and it has the potential to bear great results.
  • Western Michigan University: Its $3.2 million grant will be used to fund a research project that seeks to discover better approaches to student mentorship in order to later institute new approaches within student mentorship programs.
  • Northeastern University: This project is one of the other standouts for me. Northeastern’s Lowell Institute School will become the first-in-the-nation school focused on STEM degree completion for non-traditional students. With a focus on working adults, the institute will have robust career advising, flexible course options, and special scholarships for veterans and active duty personnel enrolled in the school. Across higher education, we need more schools to take socioeconomic circumstances into consideration when structuring classes and programs.
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