91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Can MSU get more low-income kids to graduation?

Half of all college students in the U.S. drop out, according to Michigan State University, and another 25% wind up on academic probation.

It’s part of the research MSU is doing with 10 other big schools to better understand why so many students don’t make it to graduation, and what colleges can do about it.

For low-income and first-generation kids, getting to graduation is harder

Students who are from low income families or the first generation in their family to go to college are more likely to struggle, says MSU provost June Youatt.

“For many students, coming to a university is like any one of us taking a plane to another country, getting off, and the only thing we know about how to navigate that country is what we saw in a movie,” she says.

“Obviously, that’s not going to hold up.”

Youatt says generalizations about those two students fall short, in part because the area where they may need support is individual; maybe their high school didn’t prepare them for college classes, or maybe they're struggling to navigate the college culture.

Whatever it is, that feeling of isolation is a big indicator that a student may not make it to graduation.

“First and foremost, if students don’t feel that they belong, that this is their university, and that they’ve earned a spot at the table, they’re less likely to persist,” says Youatt.

Tailoring support, from “success coaches” to “intercultural aids”

MSU is making a big push to promote its “neighborhood” system, which is a series of engagement centers based in the major housing centers at the school.

The idea is a student can walk into one of these centers anytime and immediately have access to tutoring, health classes, academic advisers, career support and even an “intercultural aid” who specializes in helping international or other students adjust to college.  

But it’s not just about putting assistance where the students are.

It’s also about making a big school seem more intimate and responsive, administrators say.

“East Neighborhood would be the size of Dartmouth, the South Neighborhood is the size of Harvard, Brody Complex would be Cornell, not including the smaller North and River Trail Neighborhoods,” says MSU  Vice President for Auxiliary Enterprises, Vennie Gore.

“We have the Ivy League school size residential environment several times over on our campus. So how do we make this large place small for students?”

If it works, these “neighborhoods” will also shift the big university culture from having dozens of support staff spread out across housing, advising, and student services office, to being a more nimble, connected community that supports a student.  

“No one anymore can point to someone else and say, ‘that’s their job to take care of those students,’” says Youatt.

“The institutional culture has to be: that’s all of our jobs.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Related Content