Pre-law major Kaylee Hawley '13 has received a state 'Realizing the Dream' award as a first-generation student
who is posting superior grades
and is a campus leader.
First-gen student Benjamin Tapper '12 and Eddie Shei '12 study in the
THE CHALLENGE SEEMS INSURMOUNTABLE: While more and more families are struggling economically, politicians and education leaders are demanding those same students get better access to higher education. Leading websites and guides for college-bound students are brimming with stories about the barriers facing low-income students – especially financially strapped students who are the first in their families to attend college.
Researchers say that low-income students without college-educated parents are less likely to attend college, score lower on standardized tests and drop out of college at higher rates than students from families with higher income and college-educated parents or siblings.
Such research is significant to Manchester College, which draws 86 percent of its enrollment from Indiana, where more than 10 percent of the workforce isunemployed and 13 percent are living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.
But why is a student from a less-fortunate family more likely to fail at college – even if the student was valedictorian of his or her high school class? Why are first-generation (first in their families to attend college) students more likely to change majors numerous times or take longer to graduate? Why are these students more likely to earn a lower salary, even with a college degree?
Because, research shows, there is a relationship between socioeconomic status and education – specifically that support and expectations are considerably lower for those students.
Surveys of more than 135 students and MC graduates of first-generation, low-income families revealed a common thread: difficulty communicating their college experiences with their families.
"I feel like I am living two different lives," says Natalie Collar '11, a regular on the Dean's List. "One includes attending courses, studying all the time, sharing enjoyable experiences with friends and growing as an individual. The other picks up when I visit home on the weekends or during the holidays."
The stories that follow are not atypical, not exaggerated. These are stories of Manchester College students and graduates.
The parents of elementary education major Cayla Davenport '11 work 10-hour shifts in a factory to make ends meet. The education major began paying for her own clothes and extracurricular activities when she was 11 because her family just didn't have the money.
Davenport longed to teach ever since meeting her first teacher as a schoolgirl. While she receives enthusiastic emotional support from her family, she is well-aware of the disadvantages she has overcome to make it to and through college.
"I feel like I haven't had as many opportunities as others (at Manchester)," she says. "Many of the teacher conferences, materials and transportation cost money that I simply don't have. I've missed things that could have advanced me in education, things I didn't have the time or money for that would have looked amazing on a resume."
Collar has lived in Fort Wayne with her father since her parents divorced when she was 7. Both parents worked in warehouses. Her high school counselors and teachers convinced the valedictorian that college could give her more opportunities. Her parents wanted her to go to college, but didn't know how to help her achieve that goal.
"I remember giving self-introductions on the first day of classes in my (first-year colloquium) class. There were many students who said their parents had attended college, but what made me feel like one of the smallest people in the room were the comments made by one student who said she had been taking college classes for over four years and even her grandparents had gone to college. At that moment, I felt like I was years behind and there was nothing I could do about it. I kept asking myself, 'How can I compete with people who have so much experience?'"
May graduate Amber Richey '10 was the first to break the chain of factory careers in her family. "Education past high school was not important to most of my family. We had the belief that we should go (to college) but no one went and saw it through to the end.
"I frequently feel cognitive dissonance with my background values and the values I have acquired while in college," says Richey, who majored in psychology with minors in gerontology and peace studies. "I grew up in a very small town and coming to college was difficult because of that narrow viewpoint I had. Now that I am back home from school, I find it difficult to uphold my new values and understanding of the world because I am back in my community. As much as I struggle with it, I know my family struggles as well because I am not the same person they sent off to college four years ago and I refuse to conform back."
Elementary education major Brittany Stevens '13 has lived with instability in her family since kindergarten, when her parents divorced. Her father made a good income as a truck driver, and Brittany has worked since she was 16, paying for her cell phone, car, clothes and other items. Her father encouraged her to go to college so she can have a better life.
"Some of the people who go to college have parents who can financially support them and give them everything they want," says Stevens, a regular on the Dean's List and a soprano in the A Cappella Choir. "I would often get angry at these students who have their car, cell phone, food and clothes paid for by their parents. I was angry because I did not have that. I have always had to explain my situation to people if I did not have enough money for a car or enough money to go to the mall."
Management and marketing double major John Sharp '12 moved with his family to a south Indianapolis mobile home community during middle school.
"The whole situation of living in a trailer park was difficult because people knew and made judgments without really knowing me," says Sharp, whose class load includes a minor in economics. He, too, drew inspiration from a high school counselor-turned-mentor.
"She became my go-to person for questions. I wasn't going to get them answered at home because no one knew what I was getting into, other than the fact that college is expensive," says Sharp.
"The hardest part of (college) class work for me is never being exposed to any of the material prior to arriving on campus," says Sharp about Shakespeare, politics, business and economics, for example. "These were things that we didn't talk about at home because there wasn't any knowledge of them."
He strives to make his tight-knit family a part of his college life. "My most difficult challenge I struggle with on a daily basis is trying to share with them what I am learning in the classroom."
Sharp has much to share. This fall, with financial support from a summer job, a Kauffman scholarship, friends and others who believe in his success, he is studying in Athens, Greece – his first time abroad and in the air.
BY NATE HODGES '10
GPAs, SATs, ACTs: Reaching beyond the acronyms
|Education major Brittany Stevens '13 tutors a student at Akron Elementary School.
DURING HIGH SCHOOL, CAYLA DAVENPORT '11 WORKED PART-TIME JOBS to pay for her clothes and activities and took care of her younger sister while her parents worked 10-hour shifts in a factory. Their schedules meant no family dinners, homework help, discussions about current events … or talk about college.
Nate Hodges '10 lived and breathed wrestling at Southmont High School in Crawfordsville, Ind. He couldn't have cared less about his grades, and it showed. "I never once brought home a book from school," he recalls. "The only concern I had about grades was making sure they were good enough to keep me on the wrestling team."
By the time he graduated, his GPA was squeamishly low, putting him just barely in the top half of his high school class. His SAT score was equally mundane, matched by his disciplinary record. "It seemed like I spent as much time in the principal's office or in the hallway as I did in class."
First-generation students, especially those of low-income families, often arrive at college with marginal academic merits, and even weaker study savvy. Frequently, they lag in achieved potential and are burdened with financial and family issues.
In some ways, it all comes down to acronyms.
Many colleges make their first cuts based on grade-point averages and scores on standardized tests for college-bound students like the SAT or the ACT. Thus, first-generation or low-income students not inspired (or encouraged) to earn strong grades in high school are unlikely to step into the vision of admissions boards.
Ironically, a mediocre GPA doesn't mean students lack academic ability. As often as not, research indicates, it means they haven't realized their ability or don't know how to harness their abilities.
Manchester College looks at the "whole student" when deciding who will be a good fit, knowing students will find a strong support system at MC. Despite his lackadaisical high school career, Hodges thrived at Manchester, graduating last spring after five semesters on the Dean's List, and succeeding at another acronym, the GRE exam for admission to graduate study at Central Michigan University.
"Some first-generation and low-income students face serious hurdles. We look for evidence of the skills that allow them to overcome those barriers," says Dave McFadden '82, executive vice president and enrollment expert. While the College considers all the usual criteria – high school grades, test scores, class rank and recommendation letters – no single variable predominates, McFadden explains.
The Manchester difference: When students are marginal – with scores, grades and class rank near the College's red lines – Manchester considers responses by those students to six questions based on the research of William Sedlacek, a scholar of non-cognitive assessment in higher education.
Sedlacek gives less weight to GPAs and test scores, finding success factors in other variables, such as positive self-concept, realistic self-appraisal, leadership, and ability to set long-term goals and defer gratification. For example, successful applicants asked to write about a passion will reveal creativity and curiosity.
The admissions committee looks for personal growth, perseverance, intellectual curiosity, empathy and other traits that will serve students well in college. "We try to look past cultural competencies and instead focus on personal characteristics," says McFadden.
Manchester weighs its financial aid decisions similarly, realizing students who need aid the least are often the ones receiving it, not only because they have the parental-nurtured grades but because their college-educated parents or siblings are not as easily daunted by the admissions system.
Manchester's average package of state, federal and College aid is $24,000 per year, leaving about $10,000 for the families to borrow or draw from family savings.
Low-income students (19 percent of MC students) also may qualify for federal Pell Grants and extreme-need students may qualify as Indiana 21st Century Scholars, receiving extra aid from the State of Indiana.
"Many low-income families overestimate the cost of college and have limited knowledge of the financial aid opportunities," says social work and gerontology faculty member Cheri Krueckeberg.
She remembers well the aid maze. "I was not savvy enough to know about applying for grants or scholarships, so for many years I worked part- or full-time and took classes when I could," says Krueckeberg, the first in her family to attend college when she entered Purdue University. (She since has earned master's degrees in divinity and social work.)
Natalie Collar '11, the first in her family to attend college, found filing for financial aid, housing, buying books, etc., sometimes "scary" situations. "I believe students with parents who attended college had a much smoother time during those processes because their parents had themselves gone through it."
Such lack of familiarity with the College system can quickly discourage families into thinking college is out of reach and even from taking the steps to prepare for college.
Katie Chaffins '12 of LaGrange, Ind., agrees. "I believe higher education is much more accessible to those in higher social classes. Though there is quite a bit of aid for the underprivileged, there is a fear that the student will be rejected or in debt for the rest of his or her life.
"I had trouble obtaining the funds to attend Manchester College," says Chaffins, who is majoring in English with a minor in journalism. "My dad actually had to borrow against his 401K to pay for the bill my first year."
Securing loans to pay off the remaining debt not covered by financial aid is another daunting hurdle for low-income families. Too often, students who most need student loans – those from low-income families – are the ones rejected by lenders because their co-signer (often a low-income relative) doesn't have a good credit history.
There's one more advantage to a Manchester College education: The leading guide for college-bound students, the "Best Colleges" ranking of U.S. News & World Report, steadfastly taps Manchester in its "Great Schools, Great Prices" of colleges graduating students with the least debt.
Manchester 2009 graduates averaged $16,235 in college debt, compared to a $26,288 average for graduates of all other Indiana independent schools.
BY NATE HODGES '10
A conversation with Bonnie O'Connell
Tenacious pathfinder and mentor to academic success
FROM HIGH-TECH NOTE-TAKING to maximizing study time to concerned counseling, Bonnie O'Connell is a one-stop study aid who thrives on opportunity. Tenacious, with a gentle guidance seeded in 31 years as a public education administrator and teacher, she puts struggling students on a steady path to mastering college-level skills and achievement.
This director of academic support (and director of resources for students with disabilities) understands first-generation college students. Even though neither of her parents graduated from high school, O'Connell forged her own way through a bachelor's degree at the University of St. Francis, a master's degree at Indiana University, and certification in elementary and secondary school administration.
Q. Why is Manchester a great fit for first-gens and low-income students?
A. First, we have experience. Every single one of our students receives financial aid and 25 percent of them are the first in their families to go to college. Their average family income is low – considerably lower than, for example, the typical Indiana University family income.
First-generation and low-income students find the people at Manchester College are welcoming, supportive and caring. They find a memorable, life-changing education through small classes; personal attention from faculty and staff; a challenging, innovative curriculum founded in the liberal arts; experiential learning in wilderness and international environments, and a wide range of campus-life programs in a small-campus setting.
Q. Why do first-generation students require special attention?
A. Planning for college is a challenge, even more so for first- generation students who lack the guidance of parents who have been there before them and support along the way. From selecting appropriate college prep courses in high school to signing up for and taking the ACT and/or SAT, to searching for financial aid –understanding the college application process can be overwhelming and cumbersome.
First-generation college students tend to enter college with more risk factors and once in college, are more likely to have unmet financial need. They often need to work jobs and can have difficulty balancing their employment schedule with academic success.
Even returning home for a weekend or vacation can bring stress for the first-gen student. One student told me, "I went home for break and sat in my room feeling lost and out of place. I wasn't prepared for this; I felt alone in my own home. I tried to tell my family and friends about my college experiences but they didn't really understand. I couldn't wait to get back to campus. (Campus) is where my home is now."
Q. How does Manchester's Success Center fit into the formula?
A. The Success Center offers an array of comprehensive services designed to help students develop the skills and strategies essential for academic achievement, personal growth and overall wellness.
College is typically a time of exploration, growth and change. It can also be a time of struggle, frustration, stress and distress. Academic support, assistance with writing, health services, counseling and career services are available to support each individual (including the strong student who wants to stretch) in the way that best meets his or her needs.
First-generation students are encouraged to participate in workshops about time management, note-taking, study skills and test-taking strategies to help them be better prepared for the expectations and rigor they face in their college courses. First-generation student mentors are also available to offer support, encouragement and guidance navigating the college system.
Q. Is it true that Manchester works with first-gen students even before they arrive on campus?
A. A $100,000 grant from Wal-Mart Foundation enabled us to embark on a very-focused program to identify and retain first-generation students, called the Manchester College Achievement Program. While that grant has expired, we gained the momentum and expertise to plan an outreach through our Admissions office, with workshops, pre-tests and post-tests for identified high school students. We hope to collect and evaluate data from this outreach to help us improve our support of first-generation students as they prepare for college.
Campus peer mentors and, of course, mentoring and support from our Success Center will help keep these first-generation students on our minds as they embark on their Manchester College careers. Our Career Services also is part of the success team.
BY NATE HODGES '10