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Innovation and Incubator Grants from the University System of Georgia

Examining and Enhancing Resources and Support for Economically Disadvantaged First Year Students

Georgia Gwinnett CollegeUniversity of North Georgia


Grant Type: 
Project Lead: 
Sheila Caldwell
Director, Complete College Georgia and Advisor to the President on Diversity
Other team members: 

Project Co-Director:

Juliana Lancaster, Ph.D.,
Executive Director, Office of Plans, Policies, and Analysis
Georgia Gwinnett College 

Other Team Members

  • Kimberly Jordan, Director of Financial Aid, Georgia Gwinnett College
  • Justin Jernigan, Dean, School of Transitional Studies, Georgia Gwinnett College
  • Susan Smith, Associate Director of Financial Aid, University of North Georgia
  • Erick Jones, Director of Student Money Management Center, University of North Georgia  
  • Abdul Roux, Director of Academic Transitions, University of North Georgia 
Project Overview: 

This project proposes to develop a customized publication of resources and services that can strengthen support for first-year low-income students to address their needs beyond financial aid. Providing information to low-income students early in their academic careers can help students persist in college (Heller, 2013). Therefore, we will host two meetings with stakeholders to develop a scalable action plan to address monetary and non-monetary needs. The first meeting will focus on collecting and assessing data, analyzing policies, and examining existing and potential resources. The second meeting will result in deliverables to include recommended policy changes, regional resources addressing the needs of economically disadvantaged students, and effective strategies to empower students to utilize resources.  The culmination of these meetings will result in a customizable publication including student, institutional, and community data for use by all USG institutions.

Potential Impact of Capacity Symposium:

    This project has the potential to level the playing field by providing more resources, opportunities, and solutions for low-income students throughout the state of Georgia, with a particular focus on first-year students. USG Institutions will be equipped to identify low-income students, capture and assess data to understand their non-monetary needs, and gain access to regional resources to assist meeting those needs, which will increase completion rates.  Increasing first-year success, retention, and completion for this demographic has the potential to transform the state of Georgia poverty and unemployment rates which are ranked 44th and 45th, respectively. Higher education provides a pathway for individual economic advancement, as well as social mobility (Lee, Hill, & Hawkins, 2012).  Furthermore, the goal of our project is perfectly aligned with the mission of Complete College America: To close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations. 

Project Description: 

Area of Need

One of the primary goals of Complete College Georgia is to “Improve Access and Completion for Underserved Students.”   It is important to focus our efforts on providing higher education for economically disadvantaged students because attaining a postsecondary credential has become increasingly important for securing opportunities to get high-return jobs in the U.S. in the 21st century.  According to Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl (2010), over half of the jobs in the United States will require a postsecondary credential in the future.

Thus, support programs designed to serve low-income students are likely to improve the ability of these students to persist, progress, and complete their college degrees. Colleges and Universities often use the Federal criteria for Pell Grant eligibility as a reasonable proxy for low-income student status. Using that measure 45% of undergraduate students within the University System of Georgia (USG) are low-income. For the institutions collaborating on this submission, the percentage is more notable with approximately 50% of Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) students and 40% of University of North Georgia (UNG) students.

While need-based grants provide an essential base of funding for direct educational costs, they are known to be insufficient to cover all educational and living expenses, leaving low-income students with unmet need. Additional grant and scholarship dollars are also unlikely to meet the full needs of such students, leaving these students facing potential insecurities in housing, child care, health care, food access, and transportation, any of which can derail a student’s continued enrollment.   Access to stable housing and basic necessities can result in increased student engagement on campus and higher connectivity with the college (Bliming, 2015).  Thus, any broad institutional focus on supporting students holistically and promoting continued enrollment must include plans and programs to support students who face such challenges.

Developing such plans and programs requires information gathering and planning around four general topics:

  • Who the low-income/low-resource students are;
  • What policies or institutional structures impede or allow implementation of appropriate structures and/or programs;
  • What resources are available (or can be made available) in the local community; and
  • What structures can inform and educate students AND will simplify access if and when resources are needed

This project will convene teams from regional institutions and community stakeholders to discuss and review these topics and to develop scalable plans for:

  • Identifying first-year, low-income  students at risk for non-completion due to a lack of comprehensive support;
  • Developing relationships with local community resources to provide support or assistance to students; and
  • Identifying policy and/or structure impediments to providing appropriate support or assistance.

Ability of meeting to produce plan to address needs

Several factors of this proposal support the likelihood that sound, actionable plans will result:

  • Institutions will be invited to send multi-person teams to each meeting representing diverse perspectives on students and their needs. At a minimum, institutions will be asked to send representatives from advising services, financial aid, First Year programming, and student affairs. By securing the participation of staff members most likely to have direct knowledge of student needs, the full group will form the plans in a more informed and representative context.
  • We will schedule two meetings. The first meeting will focus on identifying essential student needs and the data and information required as a foundation for planning; the second will focus on identifying specific needs that can be addressed by individual institutions and on developing actionable plans. Attendees at the first meeting will be asked to gather as much of the data and information identified as possible prior to the second meeting. This will allow the work at the second meeting to focus on known needs and resources, rather than speculation.
  • The two meetings will be held no less than eight weeks apart. This allows time for attendees at the first meeting to conduct reasonable data and information gathering efforts and also allow time for reflection on the essential needs that are identified during the first meeting. By building in a time for information gathering, analysis, and reflection, we will set the conditions for the second meeting to be productive and to produce well-considered, actionable plans.

Potential Impact on student success and college completion

Students who are economically disadvantaged are less likely to go to college, complete college, and earn high wages (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2013). The University System of Georgia reported approximately 117, 485 undergraduate students as low-income in fall, 2014.  Economically disadvantaged students who find themselves without transportation, child care, or housing are often unable to reach campus and, thus, are unable to continue their courses and/or enrollment. Even short-term disruptions in these areas can lead to academic failure and withdrawal. Further, students who depend on support from various governmental programs can find the eligibility and continuation requirements, particularly those requiring personal appearance in offices, highly disruptive to their educational schedules. Support structures and programs that can aid students in averting the loss of necessary stability factors such as housing, food, and transportation or that can reduce the barriers to access for off-campus support programs have a direct impact on student attendance and completion of necessary course work, and, thus, impact overall student success, persistence, progression, and completion.

Potential Lessons Learned

  • Assess qualitative and quantitative data to determine institutional influence factors for low-income students.
  • Enhance strategies to increase support of economically disadvantaged students
  • Leverage and strengthen internal and external partnerships to address resources and gaps
  • Improve retention, progression, and retention rates for low-income students

Scalability and Broader Impact

  • The primary goal of this project is for institutions to develop plans that can be implemented with low overhead costs in time, space, or personnel.