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Opening Doors to College, and Success, for Underserved Students

Author: Helios Education Foundation

Twenty-one-year-old Morgan Larson is on track to graduate from the University of Arizona in spring 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration - Accounting. That summer, she will intern for eight weeks at Ernst & Young before returning to the university to earn her Master of Business Administration. Once she passes the CPA exam, she will have a full-time job waiting at Ernst & Young.

Not a bad future for a young woman who, just a few years ago, had no real means to pay for college and seriously wondered if she and her family were "cut out for college."

What made the difference? The Arizona Assurance Scholars Program.

"I feel like I owe my entire future to Arizona Assurance," said Larson.

Begun in fall 2008, Arizona Assurance provides four years of debt-free college education at the university for low-income and first-generation students who are Arizona residents. The program is funded through a combination of university funds, public funds and private dollars from contributors such as the Helios Education Foundation, which invested $2 million in the program in 2009.

From inception through fall 2013, 3,892 entering freshmen have received financial support from Arizona Assurance.

But money is not everything.

Experts know that vulnerable students need an array of supports to succeed in college -- social supports, academic supports, work-life supports -- as well as financial aid. In fact, some say that getting into college is the easy part; the hard part is learning about and adjusting to a new environment and persevering to the finish line.

"I was really nervous about college," Larson said. "My parents did not go.... The whole application process was something that neither [my father nor I] had done before. There was the question of if I got in would I be able to go, because there wasn't any money saved."

Once accepted into the program, however, a new set of concerns emerged.

"The first semester here was probably the hardest ," Larson said. "I didn't have that support system at home. I had no one to ask 'Is this normal?' 'What should I do?' I felt like I was really confused but everyone else seemed to know what was going on. I wondered if I even belonged here -- that maybe we weren't cut out for college and that was why no one in our family had gone to college."

To help with struggles such as these, Arizona Assurance provides a variety of "wrap-around" supports that aim to shore up students academically and socially, help them manage their time and finances and adjust to life on their own, away from home. 

Peer mentoring is a major component of those support services, said Alex Robie, senior coordinator for Arizona Assurance. Peer mentors are university students -- typically juniors and seniors -- who are trained and paid to serve as mentors and counselors to new students.

Larson said her peer mentor was a life-saver. "I met with her every week," she said. "I could ask her questions I was too embarrassed to ask anyone else. She is the only reason that I didn't leave U of A."

In addition, Arizona Assurance scholars have access to staff supports. For Larson, that meant having a personal mentor in  Christine Salvesen, director of academic success and achievement at the university.

"I didn't know she was director of the program," Larson said. "I just thought she was someone who worked for the university. She was my biggest advocate. It was through her that I got my first job on campus and that led to another job and then another job..."

(Larson, in fact, has worked two jobs throughout her college career. She also served as a peer mentor, sharing with incoming freshmen the lessons she learned in her early college years.)

The benefits of these support services are evident in the percentage of Arizona Assurance scholars who re-enroll after their freshman year. For the first cohort of scholars -- the 2008-2009 class -- the freshman retention rate was 79%. For the 2012-2013 cohort (most recent available), freshman retention was 90%.

Of course, persevering to graduation is the real goal. Of those freshmen who entered the university in the fall of 2008, 30% graduated four years later, in spring 2012. Of those who entered in fall 2009, 28% graduated four years later, in spring 2013.

"We really try to hit the message home from day one that they need to graduate in four years," Robie said. "This scholarship will provide them with funding for four years and that is it."

Still, many students find a way to continue into a fifth year -- and with generally good results. For the 2008 freshmen cohort, the graduation rate rose to 51% after the fifth year.

In many respects, these vulnerable students face the same challenges that all new college students face. "Like all freshmen, they have time-management challenges -- going from a life that was programmed seven hours a day to one that is much more unstructured," Robie said. 

But these students are more likely to be under-prepared academically and more likely to bring family responsibilities with them to campus.

"A lot of these young people definitely wouldn't be coming to college without the program," Robie said. They are "very motivated -- oftentimes the first person in their family to attend college. And while they recognize there is some self-benefit in it, they are also doing it for mom or dad or grandpa or the whole family. ...A lot of these students are working part-time or full-time and sending money back home to their families; or they are responsible for a younger sibling. They have a lot of challenges that could prevent them from getting out in four years."

For the University of Arizona, the program's rewards are two-fold: Not only does it extend the promise of higher education to students who may not have thought that possible, it also enriches the mix of students on campus and the next generation of employees in Arizona.

The investment by Helios Education Foundation was critical to the early success of the program, said James H. Moore, president and CEO of the University of Arizona Foundation.

"It was the first real significant commitment that was made shortly after the program was launched," he said. "It allowed us to begin to have credible conversations with other donors, whether about an immediate gift or an endowed, planned gift."

Today, a $10-million-and-growing endowment generates income to cover a portion of the program's annual costs as well as providing for the future of Arizona Assurance, Moore said. And that means more first-generation students getting a college education that can prepare them for a successful future.

Larson remembers the moment Arizona Assurance changed her life:

"I really wanted to go to U of A but it wasn't looking good," she said. "I was thinking that I would have to go to the community college for the first two years and save enough money. But then the Arizona Assurance letter came -- I was so excited I cried. That is the only reason I am here."

Category: 10 Year Anniversary, Postsecondary Success

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