UI promotes low-income student programs in D.C.


A national push by first lady Michelle Obama encouraging low-income and first-generation students to complete a secondary education brought together several university presidents from across the nation last week.

University of Iowa President Sally Mason met with Gene Sperling, assistant to the president on economic policy, to discuss which programs — such as Iowa Edge, First Generation Iowa, and Iowa TRiO — are successful in encouraging enrollment among low-income students.

“We had the chance to illustrate the UI’s statewide impact while promoting the university’s mission of providing a quality education at an affordable price,” Mason said in a statement. “I was honored to have been one of six presidents invited to the White House to discuss how to create more access to higher education for deserving students from low-income and under-represented backgrounds — something that the University of Iowa does very well.”

First-generation students make up 25 percent of the UI’s entering class, said Michael Barron, the UI assistant provost for enrollment management and executive director of Admissions, who also said it would not be that high if it was not due to access to affordability and quality.

“I think for an institution like the University of Iowa having that many students being first generation suggests to me that our access to affordability and quality are certainly reaching students of Iowa and first generation students,” Barron said. “My sense if it wasn’t ringing true, we would see the volume of students enrolling.”

Several of the programs the UI offers for low-income students encourage them at a young age to continue with higher education.

The UI’s TRiO Upward Bound program works with students at three high schools — West Liberty High, Muscatine High, and Columbus High — to help teach students how to fill out scholarships, study, conduct service learning projects, and to help them prepare for college.

Mirra Anson, project director of UI TRiO Upward Bound, said it’s important to help students who are first-generation because not only are they overwhelmed, but their parents are, too.

“Sometimes we forget what it’s like to be all by ourselves,” Anson said. “So it’s important to reach out to first generation students who don’t have any help. There are a lot of hoops to get into college, and that’s where Upward Bound comes in.”

As a first-generation student, UI sophomore Harley Nefzger said his parents and mentors have always encouraged him to continue with higher education. However, the need for more financial opportunities should be offered.

“It’s a harsh job market, and you need to have the upper hand and the only way you can do that is by expanding your knowledge,” Nefzger said. “I’m pretty much dead-set on staying in college, but I wish there was more scholarship opportunity, because I barely had any help from the school.”

Iowa TRiO President Jennifer Schuller said she is happy to see White House officials make this issue a priority, but she hopes to see more funding restored in federal programs, which help low-income and first-generation students.

“I think it’s a great initiative,” Schuller said. “But I think [the government] needs to put more funding and restore cuts from sequestration. They need to put money into programs that have proven to work.”

Another issue Shuller said both university and national officials should focus on is retaining the students who do enroll in college.

“[Retaining students] is definitely something the state of Iowa can get better at,” Schuller said. “There’s much talk about this, both at high school, community college and college level to have more focus on retaining. More focus still needs to be on doing continual work on how to retain students from freshman year to sophomore year.”

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