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Programs and support encourage high first-generation enrollment at USU

Utah State University with a backdrop of mountains and a foreground of green trees.
Utah State University

Utah State University saw high enrollment numbers for first-generation students this fall, due in part to programs built to bring students in and then retain them through graduation.

First-generation student enrollment, both new and transfer, was up 16.3%, compared to a 14.1% increase for first-year students – a new record – and 1.9% for total enrollment.

This may be due in part to USU’s recruiters resuming their full efforts during the last year, as well as finding some measure of equilibrium with COVID-19. The pandemic hit under-served and underrepresented populations like first-generation students particularly hard. USU also has tuition assistance options like the Utah State Promise, which covers the remaining tuition and fees for students who are eligible for a federal Pell grant.

University programs are also a large factor in first-generation enrollment. The Aggies First Scholars Program, created in 2016, is built for first-generation students, who are automatically enrolled and can then opt into various aspects of the program depending on their desired involvement. According to Heidi Kesler, Director of Student Retention and Completion at USU, it gives first-generation students not just a community but a way to encourage them to seek the support they need.

"One thing that is known about first-generation students is that they are, as a group, very tenacious, very driven, very self-motivated,” Kesler said. “But at times, [they] are hesitant to avail themselves of various support and offerings on campus. … And so that's one of the big goals is to just normalize that kind of self-advocacy, normalize being involved in things outside of the classroom, and help-seeking.”

The program’s Scholar Pathway involves working with a mentor, fellowship opportunities and taking two seven-week courses to learn leadership skills and the “hidden curriculum” of college. Kesler reported students in this track retain their second year 20% higher than those in the general track and 8% higher than the overall one-year retention rate.

The number of students opting into the Scholar Pathway more than doubled this year, and Kesler hopes to continue to see it grow.

“We want to see an increase of first-gen students that know that they have a true home at Utah State,” she said.

Information about the Aggies First Scholars Program can be found here.

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.