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Here's how MSU plans to graduate more first-generation, low-income students

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

We've talked a lot about what it's like to be a first generation student at the University of Michigan, and what it's like to be a first generation student at Grand Valley State University. Now let's take a look at what it's like to be one at Michigan State University.

Our tour will pretty much start and end in one place: MSU's East Neighborhood, home to roughly 2,500 freshmen including Eric Glass, Jr.

Glass remembers exactly when he found out he got accepted to MSU. "I was sitting in my economics class in high school, I received a text from my mother, and I liked jumped up out of excitement!" He was so happy to be the first in his family to go to college. But once he actually arrived on campus, the doubt started to set in. 

"It was very overwhelming," he says. His parents were supportive, but they couldn't really offer him too much help in the academic department. Take scheduling, for example. "I asked my Mom if I should take this class, should I take that class," says Glass, "and she was like 'Honey, I have no idea.'"

So he turned to an academic advisor. But instead of having to hop a bus or ride a bike across MSU's huge campus for an appointment, he just walked down to the main floor of his dorm and met an advisor there.

That, says Glass, is the beauty of MSU's Neighborhood Initiative. It's basically a one-stop shop for all your academic, residential and social needs.

There are five so-called "neighborhoods" on campus for all incoming freshmen. I visited Glass' East Neighborhood, but I'm told they all look pretty much the same -- wide open spaces reminiscent of the dot com era with low, glass partitions and brightly colored walls -- and include the same resources: academic coaches, tutors, study areas, restaurants, a health center, writing center, library, student engagement center, group fitness classes; during the day a number of rooms are used for classes, and at night those rooms turn into a math learning center and a learning resource center where students can go for general tutoring (time management skills, test taking skills) and course-specific tutoring.

Students, like Eric Glass, who are first generation and low-income, also get academic coaches, mostly juniors and seniors, who are required to work with the students one hour a week plus study groups. 

The extra outreach appears to be paying off. The Neighborhoods Initiative is in its second full year and MSU officials say they have seen improved GPAs for low-income, first generation students who used the coaching services and engagement center compared to their peers that did not. They also found that students who used the Neighborhood services were less likely to wind up on academic probation. 

MSU is one of 11 large public research universities working together to try to increase graduation rates for low-income, first generation students. Here's a little blurb from the University Innovation Alliance webpage:

Our goal is to improve outcomes for ALL students regardless of background. From predictive analytics to intensive advising, Alliance universities are helping students in highly innovative ways. Now, for the first time, we're going to introduce these innovations across the alliance to see what works on a larger scale. We are engaging in a public experiment to change the way universities work together and help more students achieve a quality college degree.

By sharing ideas and innovative practices and programs, like MSU's Neighborhood Intiative, the 11 member universities have pledged to graduate an additional 68,000 students by 2025.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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