University of Iowa provost reports ‘equity gap’ in first-generation student outcomes

UI Provost Montserrat Fuentes discussed initiatives aimed to help close that gap as well as programs launched to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion among faculty.


Katie Goodale

Provost Montserrat Fuentes speaks during an interview with The Daily Iowan in Jessup Hall on Monday Sept. 30, 2019. Fuentes addressed topics including diversity of campus and student enrollment.

Alexandra Skores, News Editor

University of Iowa Provost Montserrat Fuentes on Wednesday reported a gap in outcomes for first-generation students compared with their continuing generation peers, as Hawkeyes who are the first in their families to attend college see lower graduation and retention rates.

Delivering the annual diversity report to the state Board of Regents, Fuentes highlighted strides in retention of underrepresented students, which she said was in part thanks to programs such as Iowa Edge that are geared toward supporting those students. 

The first- to second-year retention rate for underrepresented students in the 2017 cohort was 82.3 percent, up from 80.8 retention in the 2016 cohort.

“But what is problematic is to see the equity gap that we have, and it’s really much more dramatic with the first-gen — the first-generation students,” she said. “The graduation rates have been in a continuous manner decreasing over time to the point that right now, [it] is the group that we have the highest academic risk.”

First-time first-year enrollment was up to 21.9 percent in fall 2019 from 21.1 percent of Hawkeyes in the fall of 2018, she said. But first- to second-year retention rates went down to 78.4 percent in the 2017 cohort from 79.2 percent in the 2016 cohort, both a drop from 80.9 percent in the 2013 cohort.

“So we are in the process of establishing and promoting a lot of different initiatives to make sure that we have each single member of our Hawkeye family to achieve their full potential,” she said.

As The Daily Iowan previously reported in January, the Provost’s Office unveiled the Hawkeye First Generation Initiative, set to launch summer 2020, with focuses on academic engagement, mentorship, and support. 

Fuentes told the DI Jan. 21 that the UI will randomly select approximately 200 incoming first-generation students to participate in the program and follow up by conducting an assessment at the end of the year.

The provost also discussed initiatives aimed at advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion among faculty. At the UI’s annual diversity update in January, Fuentes voiced concerns over a five-year decrease in tenure and tenure-track faculty. 

According to regents’ documents, in fall 2018, 33.1 percent of the UI’s full-time tenured and tenure-track employees were female and 20.93 percent were minorities, falling below the peer-group average of 35.48 percent female and 24.3 percent minority.

In order to address these concerns, the Provost’s Office developed the Path to Distinction, a program that will integrate research-informed practices concerning diversity and equity into recruitment processes in different academic departments. Additionally, the Distinction Through Diversity Fund was created to recruit and retain undergraduate students and tenure-track faculty of color. 

In January, Fuentes also announced the beginning of a new postdoctoral fellowship initiative in an effort to diversify faculty and create a clear path for postdoctoral scholars going into academia. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, Fuentes said the first cohort of postdoctoral fellows would be unveiled soon.

“We need to diversify our faculty so we can better represent the student population that we proudly serve,” she said to the DI in January. “The pool is limited in recruitment efforts when it comes to faculty, so I wanted to increase the pool for the University of Iowa, but also for the academy in general.”

Fuentes said the UI has taken on a “different way of thinking” in its paradigm shift from diversity alone to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The UI has been guided by its 2019-21 action plan implemented in April 2019, Fuentes said.

She mentioned the search is underway for a new associate vice president for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion who will help achieve those aims. 

In March, the UI announced the co-chairs in the search, Nadine Petty, executive director of the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, and Russ Ganim, associate provost and dean of International Programs, with the assistance of firm Issacson, Miller, Inc., to find a new leader after TaJuan Wilson announced his resignation from the role in August.

“We recognize that to be able to achieve the level of excellence that we aspire … we need to have a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Fuentes said.