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First-generation students sought

When classes open this fall at Bellarmine University in Louisville, 47 percent of the 600 entering students on the Roman Catholic campus will be ”first-generation“ ­— the first in their families seeking a college degree.

The school's efforts to enroll, retain and graduate first-generation students is gaining national attention and providing significant benefits to a state where only 20 percent of adults have a college degree.

Bellarmine is one of 20 private colleges and universities that have each won $100,000 grants to further their work with first-generation students.

The Wal-Mart College Success Awards were presented by the Wal-Mart Foundation in cooperation with the Council of Independent Colleges.

The recipients were picked for a reason: Private institutions graduate 61 percent of their first-generation students, while the rate at public institutions is 44 percent, according to the council.

The efforts of Bellarmine and other private colleges to recruit first-generation students is important if Kentucky hopes to meet its goal of doubling the number of those with bachelor's degrees to 800,000 by 2020.

State officials couldn't say how many of Kentucky's college students are first-generation, but the number does vary widely from campus to campus.

At the University of Kentucky, for example, an entering class will have only 16 percent to 17 percent first-generation students.

In contrast, many of Kentucky's private colleges, particularly those in Appalachia, have entering classes where 60 percent to 80 percent of students are first-generation.

These schools would include, for example, Campbellsville University, University of the Cumberlands, and Pikeville, Lindsey Wilson, Union, Alice Lloyd and Berea colleges, according to the Association for Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities.

Nationally, the graduation rate for students whose parents graduated from college is 68 percent. But only 24 percent of first-generation students finish college.

A lot of the problem is that a first-generation student doesn't have family experience to fall back on.

Georgetown's Brittany Polsgrove, 19, a Bellarmine sophomore, says that a year ago ”it was hard to know what to expect. I was completely on my own.“

For example, Polsgrove at first didn't know to use the syllabus to keep up with assignments in English class.

The Scott County High School graduate, who is on a partial athletic scholarship to play softball, said it's easy to get help at Bellarmine.

”The faculty and staff are incredibly caring,“ she said. ”Some professors even give you their cell phone numbers. They want you to succeed.“

Bellarmine will use its grant to create a mentorship program for first-generation students. An adviser and 15 peer mentors will help the students succeed academically and become more involved on campus.

Sean Ryan, Bellarmine's vice president of enrollment management, attributed the university's success with first-generation students to its relatively small size, faculty advisers, student mentors, an average class size of 20 students and a student-to-faculty ratio of 13-to-1.

Bellarmine breaks down its entering class into small groups to work closely with advisers and peer mentors and the students take a 1-credit-hour Freshman Focus course that deals with issues arising from students' transition to college, Ryan said.