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Kansas University has signed on to a national effort led by the White House to increase college access for low-income students.
President Barack Obama earlier this month called on schools, government and the private sector to increase college access for those who could improve their lot the most through higher education.
The president unveiled little in terms of new policies, but highlighted a growing concern about the difficulty low-income, first generation and minority students have in attaining college degrees.
The differences in degree attainment between top and bottom income groups are stark. For those born into a family in the top 25 percent of income earners, an estimated 71.2 percent of 24 year olds had completed a bachelor's degree in 2011, according to a paper in the journal Postsecondary Education Opportunity. For those from the bottom 25 percent, only 10.4 percent completed a degree.
Enrollment data show similar disparities at KU. Students from families making below $30,000 accounted for just 10 percent of students at KU in 2011-2012 school year, according to figures from CollegeInSight, a data storehouse operated by the nonprofit College Access & Success.
That number is behind the national average of 17 percent, though it has increased from 8 percent in the 2009-10 school year.
Making a commitment
The White House included KU on a list of more than 100 colleges and universities that are making fresh commitments to boost college accessibility. Sara Rosen, KU senior vice provost of academic affairs, said programs exist to both help recruit low-income students and handle college-readiness issues common especially among first generation students.
Disparities exist in retention as well. In 2012 the freshman retention rate, which measures the freshman returning as sophomores for the next year, was 67.4 percent for Pell-eligible students at KU, as compared to about 80 percent for students overall. Rosen said her office is focused on pushing both numbers up.
One of the key programs to help with retention is Hawk Link. Housed in the KU Office of Multicultural Affairs, Hawk Link helps first-generation and minority students navigate the transition to college by providing them with tutoring, comprehensive advising and first-year seminars on the college transition.
Mauricio Gomez Montoya, a retention specialist with Hawk Link, said he helps students deal with a wide range of challenges, such as time management, nutrition, academic expectations, navigating the grant and loan system — which might be especially difficult if parents don't have a long or great credit history — and issues of class and cultural or ethnic identity.
"Sometimes it's a lack of identification. Students get nervous or sad because they don't see a lot of themselves around," Montoya said.
Rosen said her office wants to expand both Hawk Link and first-year seminars, called PRE101, that help prepare students for college life, but definite plans have not been set and depend on resources. Soon to come are new analytics tools to help identify struggling students before they fall behind or leave the university.
KU also works to attract lower income students, first by reaching out as early as middle school and trying to convince them that college is an option, said Matt Melvin, KU vice provost for enrollment management.
To help lower-income students pay the high costs of college, the university offers the Pell Advantage program, which provides additional tuition assistance from state and university funds on top of federal Pell grants. KU also offers specialized scholarships for low-income, first-generation and minority students, including the Multicultural scholar program, which will soon double its yearly cohort from 30 to 60 students, according to the academic affairs office.