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Serving Traditionally Underserved Communities at NAU: Balancing Broad and Targeted Approaches

The EvoLLLution| Serving Traditionally-Underserved Communities at NAU: Balancing Broad and Targeted Approaches
It’s critical to maintain a balance between specialized programs designed for specific demographics and broader strategies aimed at having a wider impact when developing support services, especially at institutions that serve large numbers of students from traditionally underserved communities.

Historically underserved students are a significant and increasing proportion of the college-going population. For example, over 40 percent of NAU’s freshman class each year are first-generation college students. Similarly, over the last decade, the population of under-represented minority students at NAU has increased to become a closer reflection of the demographics in the state of Arizona. Among the incoming class in 2017, 38 percent of students self-identified as an ethnic minority.

If educational attainment in Arizona is to increase, we need our traditionally underserved students to be successful. We need to close attainment gaps. A key step toward that goal is for universities to deploy programs to support all different types of students, including those who have historically been underserved.

For many students, the transition to college can be rocky, and developing a sense of belonging on campus is critical to perseverance. Different populations may have different challenges with the transition to college. To address specific needs, programs should be tailored. For example, Native American Student Services at NAU helps Native American students develop their place on campus. Similarly, NAU’s Office of First-Generation Programs incorporates several initiatives that respond to the particular needs of first-generation college students.

How We Are Supporting the Persistence and Completion of Underserved Communities at NAU

Like many of our peer institutions, NAU has created an array of programs to support students academically, socially and personally. Three such programs that stand out include:

The First Year Learning Initiative (FYLI)

One of NAU’s signature programs is the First Year Learning Initiative (FYLI). This program is a faculty-created and led collaborative of 78 100- and 200-level general education and “gateway” courses represented annually by over 950 class sections. Instructors can certify their courses with FYLI by aligning syllabi and pedagogical practice with research-based principles. The FYLI program provides one FYLI peer TA for each certified course section. FYLI peer TA’s assist in the classroom and serve as resources and role models to students in the class. Although FYLI was not created specifically to support historically underserved student populations, we know that less well prepared students in particular will succeed at higher rates if our courses are well designed and taught.

Successful Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) Program

NAU initiated the Successful Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) program almost thirty years ago to help under-represented students transition to college life. STAR is a five-week summer residential bridge program that provides credit-bearing courses and community-building activities to foster academic confidence, sense of belonging and engagement. STAR engages about 150 freshmen each summer, and has been shown to positively impact retention.

Native American Student Services (NASS)

Native American Student Services (NASS) is an example of an integrated suite of programs focused on a specific student demographic. NASS provides individualized academic, financial, personal, career, cultural, and social support to Native American students. While the main focus is on first-year students through summer bridge and connections programs, services are available to students at all academic levels. NASS operates out of the Native American Cultural Center, an intentionally designed building near central campus that symbolizes the institution’s mission to serve Native American communities.

Why It’s Important to Create Specific Programs for Specific Communities

As noted above, some student success programs are designed to serve our broader student community, and other programs are specifically tailored to address the unique challenges facing specific demographics. There are a few key reasons for this approach.

First, a practical reason for differentiating programs is that very large programs tend to lose the personal feel that is so critical to participants. Smaller, more targeted programs provide a better opportunity for students and program staff (whether staff, faculty, or peers) to develop strong relationships.

Beyond that, there is of course no “one size fits all” solution for student support. Some students need opportunities to engage beyond the classroom, for example to delve into undergraduate research or community service. Those activities motivate them and help them see the practical applications of their coursework. Other students may need learning support, in terms of generalizable study skills or for cross-cutting skills such as effective written communication. Many students need focused assistance with the content of specific courses such as accounting or chemistry. For other students, developing a sense of belonging on campus is the critical first step. In many cases, students can benefit from cooperative layers of support – social, academic, and personal.

The design of programs should depend on the intended audience. Even within academic support, there is no one best method. Faculty office hours are great for some students. But other students benefit more from peer support through supplemental instruction or tutoring. Veterans often need social support that is quite different from what would be appropriate for a traditional non-veteran student. Similarly, the challenges commonly encountered by certain student sub-populations, such as international students, are often distinct.

Maintaining an effective balance between specialized programs designed for specific student demographics and broader strategies that are likely to have a wider impact is a constant challenge for universities. Many academic programs lend themselves to broader application. For example, initiatives designed to improve course design, pedagogy and curriculum have the potential to benefit all students who enroll in those courses and academic plans. Likewise, enrichments such as supplemental instruction and tutoring are typically available to all students in the given course. Social programs are often more targeted, such as for first-generation students, out-of-state students, or students from particular backgrounds. One of the primary tenants of social programs is to help students recognize there are others who are like them.

Program cost per student is also a factor when determining which programs can be scaled up to include a larger population. Programs like STAR, which includes a multi-week residential and academic component, have a significant per-student cost and therefore should be focused on those students who are likely to attain the greatest benefit.

Another consideration are the students themselves; some student populations can benefit from more layered programming (from very specific to more broad) than can others. For example, few institutions would devise a targeted academic support program for students who had a 4.0 GPA in high school. Rather, these students may benefit from the more broadly applicable tactics. On the other hand, students who are identifiably under-represented on campus, such as people of color, are likely to benefit from a program that is focused on helping them feel comfortable on campus, despite being clearly in the minority. A broad program is not likely to achieve the sense of inclusion that a focused program can attain, but an individual student may benefit from both strategies.

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