Talent Dividend Work

Helping students get to school -- financially, academically and physically

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Getting students to college is a challenge. It requires a whole-community effort to make sure students are prepped for college during their K-12 years. It means helping students access resources like test prep and financial aid. And it requires supporting students throughout their education so they stay in school and complete their degrees.

And then there's an even more basic challenge: Physically getting students to campus. 
A pilot program at the University of Texas at El Paso, supported by a $10,000 challenge grant from the Knight Foundation, focused on one high school where fewer than 50% of graduating students went on to undertake any higher education. The school, Mountain View, is in a small district in the rural reaches of El Paso. From there, it takes two 45-minute bus rides -- after getting to the bus stop in the first place, which often requires a drive -- to make it to UTEP's downtown campus. 
"It's difficult for these kids to get here," says Donna Ekal, Associate Provost in the Office for Undergraduate Studies at UTEP. "It involves a lot of sophisticated problem-solving, and these are first-generation kids with no community to help them solve these problems."
UTEP trained students who graduated from the same district to return to Mountain View, sending them back to talk about their experience at college, offer advice for succeeding in school, and answer questions. Meanwhile, Ekal says, UTEP developed lesson plans designed to help Mountain View students learn to carpool, coordinate schedules, use commuting time to study, and consider on-campus housing or online courses. Once enrolled at UTEP, Ekal's office will "adopt" Mountain View students to help them through the challenges they face in their first year and beyond.

Already, Ekal says, the program has doubled the number of students from Mountain View who are enrolling in UTEP this fall. The district has been so impressed with the outcomes that they've applied for a grant to replicate the program at all three district high schools, and UTEP could use the program as a model for future outreach. 

"Students in small rural districts face challenges in coming to the city," Ekal says. "It helped us with that target population, but it also opened our eyes to lessons that can be spread throughout the region."

Ekal credits UTEP's strong Center for Institutional Planning, Evaluation and Research (CIERP) for tracking success. Students at UTEP are largely first-generation; many are enrolled part-time or drop out to work and support their families, so keeping a close eye on where students are on their path to a degree is crucial. 

"Traditional four- and six-year graduation models are changing," Ekal says, echoing a UTEP paradigm of access and success measurement that has earned national attention. "Our goal is to keep students in schools, help them manage financial aid so they don't get into debt, keep them focused on the target, and we're seeing good results from that. Degrees awarded numbers are going up steadily."  

Source: Donna Ekal, University of Texas at El Paso 
Writer: Amy Elliott Bragg

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