By Denise Dick
Youngstown State University has the highest percentage of first-generation college students among Ohio’s four-year state universities — and that presents some difficulties.
A February report from the Ohio Board of Regents on Undergraduate and Graduate Student Diversity show YSU’s first-generation college students comprised 56 percent of undergraduates in fall 2010, tied with Shawnee State University in Portsmouth.
Central State University in Wilberforce came in second with 55 percent. The University of Akron and Kent State University logged 47 percent and 41 percent, respectively. The percentages are for the universities’ main campuses.
YSU’s percentage has remained nearly the same for the past few years.
Jack Fahey, vice president for student affairs, acknowledged that poses challenges to the university’s retention and graduation rates.
“National research shows retention and graduation rates for first-generation college students are much lower,” he said.
Students who are the first in their families to pursue a degree don’t have someone at home who can coach them through how to deal with problems on campus.
“They don’t know that if they’re having a problem with a faculty member, there’s a department chair they can talk to, or the dean,” Fahey said. “They don’t know how to fill out a FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], how financial aid works, so many things they’re learning for the first time.”
YSU’s Center for Student Progress has several programs and services in place to track and help these students, from tutoring and mentoring programs to academic coaches.
Jonelle Beatrice, the center’s director, said the center offers programs for all students, more than half of whom are first-generation.
“We set up peer mentoring during orientation,” she said. “Every student is paired one-on-one or with a small group to guide them through their whole first year. That’s relatively unusual. Most universities do a course. We try to do a more personal approach.”
Because parents can play a major role in their student’s education, orientation includes an hour session for them too, where Center for Student Progress representative talk about the difference between high school and college.
“We talk about the volume of information,” Beatrice said. “We always tell them that one day in college they get the amount of information that equates to about a week in high school.”
College courses also are more intense. A high-school biology class usually lasts a year; in college, students must digest the information in 15 weeks.
If a student is attending full time, the center encourages those who need to work to limit the job to 20 hours per week so they have ample time for study, she said.
A 2008 Strategic Plan for Higher Education 2008-17 listed 19,509 as the number of first-generation Ohio college students to earn a degree in 2007 with 33,333 as the goal for 2017-18.
One reason YSU’s first-generation college percentage is high may be that the Mahoning Valley’s educational-attainment percentage is low compared with the rest of the state, the vice president said.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2010 shows that about 21 percent of Mahoning County residents, about 18 percent of Trumbull County residents and about 14 percent of Columbiana County residents earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Fahey attributes that to the area’s manufacturing history.
“For years and years and years, people were able to make a great living coming right out of high school,” he said.