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How a top college is trying to help low-income students succeed in science

“A lot of the stuff that we do really isn’t earth-shattering. They’re best practices that are implemented everywhere.”

Mattheus DeSouza, 20, of Union, N.J., and Aleena Andrews, 21, of Egg Harbor, chat in a lab as part of the PERSIST support program.
Mattheus DeSouza, 20, of Union, N.J., and Aleena Andrews, 21, of Egg Harbor, chat in a lab as part of the PERSIST support program.Read more

The College of New Jersey generally attracts top students who tend to succeed in college, with high retention and graduation rates. But in the sciences, those numbers sometimes obscured a disappointing gap: Students from low-income families left science majors at higher rates than their peers.

A decade ago, when 85 percent of TCNJ's overall biology and chemistry students graduated within five years, 1 in 3 financially needy students left the biology or chemistry programs. Many of those students were the first in their families to attend college and often were racial and ethnic minorities.

The African American graduation rate in those two majors was 49 percent; for Hispanic students, it was 71 percent.

Those numbers didn't sit well with faculty and administrators at an institution that prides itself on academic excellence and support for students.

"We feel really strongly that we have a moral imperative not to put any boundaries or obstacles in the way to achieving excellence," said Jeffrey Osborn, dean of TCNJ's School of Science.

In 2008, with a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, TCNJ biology and chemistry teachers created the Program to Enhance Retention of Students in Science Trajectories in Biology and Chemistry.

The program provided yearly scholarships up to $10,000 to students from low-income families, assigned them peer mentors and faculty advisers, and mandated tutoring and academic skills workshops.

Four years later, the federal government again funded the PERSIST program. The result: 40 of the first 49 students graduated or were on track to do so within five years, a rate of 82 percent. An additional 32 students were part of the program's second round.

"They need the guiding, the mentoring, and sometimes the encouragement to succeed," said Donald Lovett, a biology professor who helped start and lead the program. "And when all of this works, the students often are able to make tremendous leaps and bounds over the four years here to be just as successful as other students."

Program leaders aren't applying for renewed funding, declaring the experiment a success. As the program slowly shuts down — it accepted its last freshmen last year — its leaders are looking to apply the lessons learned to the rest of the school.

How, they ask, can TCNJ better teach and support all of its students?

PERSIST Scholars, as the students are known, are given a support structure from day one, beginning with a three-day introductory boot camp during freshman welcome week.

To ensure students take advantage of the many services bundled in the program, many pieces are mandatory:

  1. A faculty mentor meets weekly with the student and serves as academic adviser.

  2. A peer mentor meets weekly to provide social support and help the student navigate non-classroom issues.

  3. An academic tutor meets weekly, with at least one hour per core math and science course.

  4. Workshops on auxiliary skills such as time management and study strategies are held three times a semester.

  5. Students are also required to meet one-on-one, early in the semester, with the professors for every math or science course in which they enroll.

"A lot of the stuff that we do really isn't earth-shattering," said Benny Chan, a chemistry professor who helped start the program. "They're best practices that are implemented everywhere."

By putting students in intensive, one-on-one, and small-group settings, the PERSIST program creates a tightly knit community, students said.

Aleena Andrews, 21, of Egg Harbor, a senior studying chemistry, recalled how she had been struggling with classes as a sophomore.

Andrews brought it up to her peer mentor at one of their meetings in the semester. Her mentor suggested she check out some campus resources, including the school's counseling services.

"I didn't know I struggled with anxiety until she told me to go talk to a therapist because I was struggling, and that's something that really helped me," she said.

As a first-generation college student, Andrews said, she also benefited from being around students pursuing paths she had never seen before.

Without the program, she said, she wouldn't have been friends with people heading into graduate school; without friends doing research in the summers, she wouldn't have known about those opportunities.

Like Andrews, Rebecca Goncalves, 20, a junior from Kearny studying chemistry, said she had entered college expecting to go to medical school. Both students now have set their sights on graduate school.

"At home, my parents are supportive, obviously — they want me to get a college education, they want me to be the American dream," said Goncalves, also a PERSIST scholar and first-generation college student. "But they don't know how to guide me to that because they don't have the experience, they don't have the college education. Just being able to learn from older peers on what to do has built my college path."

With the program ending, the faculty and administrators are trying to learn from PERSIST's success.

Replicating the program on a wider scale at the 6,500-student college would be nearly impossible without massive funding — each student requires a minimum of a faculty adviser, a peer mentor and tutor, and an intensive schedule of program-related events — but some parts can be a model, program leaders said.

The school has increased its financial support for summer research-related travel and built a peer mentor program for science majors, Osborn said.

An introductory freshman course that served as an orientation to the biology and chemistry majors has been redesigned to place more emphasis on the types of skills taught in PERSIST's group workshops.

Chan said he's realized first-generation college students aren't the only ones who need help.

"The real important lesson that we've learned is that students … really don't know what it takes to be a college student," he said. "First-year students in general just don't understand what they need to do in college."

Some students have never had to study intensively to succeed, Chan said; others were given such structured academic support they never learned to work independently.

Professors also need to change the way they approach the job, PERSIST leaders said. A major lesson from PERSIST is that faculty need to go beyond the classroom.

"Those of us who are faculty members or staff members who are engaging with students don't have the background and training that really prepares us to talk about issues that are difficult to talk about, to put ourselves in different kinds of mindsets," Osborn said. "We've put in place a number of conversations led by faculty about how do we broaden our mindset, how do we think differently about how we engage with students in and out of the classrooms?"