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APSU program earns national award for helping first-generation students succeed


CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Two years ago, Austin Peay State University was awarded a $2.5 million U.S. Department of Education grant to develop an innovative new program – the Purpose First Scholars – aimed at increasing retention and graduation rates for first-generation and under-resourced students. Word quickly spread across the country about the success of this new initiative, and earlier this month, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) presented Austin Peay with a Silver Award of Excellence for its “First-Generation Student Success” work.

According to the NASPA website, the excellence awards recognize schools that “are transforming higher education through outstanding programs, innovative services and effective administration.”

Austin Peay’s Purpose First Scholars provides a living-learning community for first-generation and Pell Grant-eligible freshmen. The program welcomes these individuals with a special, overnight orientation geared toward community building and college readiness. Events throughout the fall strengthen cohort connections and focus on career exploration and development of vital skills for their field of interest. Other scholars also help participants stay motivated to graduate while preparing for the labor market after graduation.

“First-generation and under-resourced student success is extremely important for both the University and the students,” Dr. Kacie Hutson, director of coaching and student success initiatives at APSU, said last fall. “Around 60% of students at APSU identify as first-generation or Pell-eligible. If we can support their transition and success at the institution, our retention rates could soar. Additionally, for the students, the effects of completing a college degree on their socio-economic mobility is exponential.”

Hutson said the national four-year degree completion rate for Pell-eligible students at four-year institutions is 14%, compared to 20% for non-Pell-eligible students. In addition, only 20% of first-generation students complete a degree within six years, compared to 49% of continuing-generation students. This data contributed to Austin Peay’s sense of urgency in developing intentional and structured initiatives to welcome and support Purpose First Scholars during their educational and career readiness journeys.

In year two, the learning community is celebrating a huge success with a fall-to-spring retention rate of nearly 95%, compared to 82% of their non-participant, Pell-eligible or first-generation peers. Part of that success comes from the bonds these scholars form with their cohort and the campus during their first few days as Austin Peay students.

“One significant goal of the learning community is to improve retention by forming early connections to majors and career fields that suit student skills and labor market needs,” Savannah Longo, APSU coordinator for coaching and student success initiatives, said. “Beginning with orientation, these scholars were given exclusive opportunities to learn about the benefits of college completion and utilizing campus resources, all while building a community.”

Oveira Ortiz, a Purpose First Scholar, quickly discovered that community during her first semester on campus.

“It’s been cool to have each class, knowing at least somebody there,” she said. “And coming to a University, to Austin Peay, and having people I can go to for help is an amazing thing.”

Longo is now recruiting for the next cohort of scholars for the 2023-2024 academic year. For information on the program, visit  https://www.apsu.edu/academic-strategic-initiatives/title-III.php

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