Program helps first generation college students succeed

SOAR program gives services to first generation college students

The SOAR program helped Carolina Talavera Martinez, a first generation college student, earn her degree in four years.

Services include academic advising, tutoring and counseling

In fall of 2012, Carolina Talavera Martinez opened a message from the tall stack of emails that greets new freshman. It was an invitation to a program that said it would help her get to know people in the College of Health & Social Sciences (CHSS), where she was entering as a kinesiology major. “OK,” she thought, “I don’t know anyone here, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do ….” She kept reading. The letter laid out some requirements to enter the program. “The requirements were things that were going to benefit me,” she recalls. “Talk to an advisor in your department, meet with a general-education advisor — so, of course I was going to do it.”

The advising anchored a slate of services Martinez received in the program and helped her choose the classes that she needed without spending unnecessary time on ones that wouldn’t count towards her major. Not only did she finish her undergraduate degree in four years, but she’s already completing her second semester of a two-year master’s program, also in kinesiology.

That pivotal email was from Student Outreach and Academic Retention, or SOAR, then a pilot program launching to serve the specific needs of low-income, first-generation college students like Martinez in their critical first year of school. Since the initial cohort of 30 students, SOAR has blossomed into a success story with a 97 percent retention rate, a 98 percent rate of solid academic standing, and, as of the Fall 2015 semester, federal funding that quadrupled the number of students it serves.

Students within SOAR’s demographics typically face myriad challenges — working more hours to contribute to family income, helping with younger siblings at home, dealing with outsized stress that descends when family needs combine with exam periods. Those factors translate to the highest dropout rate of any group of college students. A 2015 Pell Institute study found just 9 percent of students from bottom income quartile graduate with a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to 77 percent for the top income quartile. Among first-generation students alone, only 25 percent graduated within four years and 50 percent within 6 years, according to a 2011 study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which also found that graduation rates at public universities lag far behind private schools.

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