In 2010, Brittany Courtney left Frankfort to attend the University of Kentucky, the first person in her family to attend college. She's still there today, thriving as an accounting major.
Courtney is part of what's turning out to be a very successful experiment at UK — The First Scholars Program, which was funded through a grant from the Suder Foundation in 2010. Giving $800,000, the foundation challenged UK to mentor 20 first generation Kentucky students with scholarships, advising, and the basic help that students who didn't grow up in a higher education culture need.
In 2011, all 20 students returned to UK, a higher retention rate than any other recorded student group at the university.
The percentage of all 2010 freshmen who returned for a second year was 81.5. Among all first-generation students, the rate was 75.2 percent, according to a study by the UK Office of Institutional Research. (All the First Scholars also returned in 2012, but the study of all student populations looked only through 2011.)
For Tony Kao, a junior First Scholar studying mechanical engineering, the reasons for the program's success are simple: "You have to have somebody to go to when you need academic support. They're really there to kick you in the ass sometimes or when you need a little advice or guidance."
That support — financial, motivational, advisory, academic — is also known as an "intrusive advising model," says Matthew Deffendall, who was director of the First Scholars program before being named director of first generation initiatives.
"That's a model supported by our national association in dealing with, for lack of a better term, at-risk populations in which you're very involved, very hands on, very much in their business," he said. "Someone is checking up on you, and you're meeting regularly with advisors. A lot of advisors only see students once or twice a year. Here it's at least once a month or once a week."
Mentors push the students to avoid complacency by pointing out scholarships, research opportunities abroad, and interesting student groups, Deffendall said.
The First Scholars program, which is now directed by Martina Martin, has a cozy set of offices in Funkhouser where students congregate. The students also live in what's called a "learning community" in Blanding III residence hall, where they have access to on-site professor's office hours and students from other programs, such as the Robinson Scholars program, which mentors students from Eastern Kentucky, and AMSTEMM, the Appalachian and Minority Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Majors program.
According to the UK retention study, the First Scholars have maintained a 3.0 GPA.
All these programs appear to be working. The only problem is money.
The Suder grant paid $5,000 per year for the first two classes of First Scholars for up to four years. With a combination of university general funds and donations, UK found the same amount for 22 students for the third year, and is gradually absorbing the operational costs — about $135,000 a year — from the grant.
Deffendall said it's not clear what will happen with the fourth class, but naturally, he'd like to expand. The program gets more than 200 applications a year from 90 Kentucky counties.
Ben Withers, interim associate provost for undergraduate education, said UK has committed to paying for the program's operations, but the funding for scholarships will have to come from the colleges, which have their own development offices, and donations.
"We want to make sure colleges understand they have students who should be in a program like this," he said. "But we need a lot of external support."
Each college has students "who should be in a program like this," Withers said.
Deffendall also noted that increasing retention rates helps UK's bottom line.
First-generation students make up 30 percent of the student body at UK. President Eli Capilouto has estimated that improving retention rates by 5 percent could result in $12 million to $15 million more in recurring tuition revenue.
Still, spending for items like student advising is often cut first during difficult budget times, and the kind of care given to First Scholars is rare. But that attention is what made the difference for Falisha Patel, 19, a sophomore from London, who is majoring in political science.
"You're not a number," she said of the program.
Other students aren't so lucky, she said.
"They're giving some advisors 500 students, and half of them don't know what the students are interested in or what they need for their future," Patel said.