The University of South Carolina strives to be an environment where all students can flourish and succeed, regardless of their backgrounds. Essay sat down over coffee to discuss the programs and support that South Carolina offers first-generation and low-income students with three champions of these inclusive efforts: Althea Counts, director of TRIO programs; Joey Derrick, director of student financial aid and scholarships; and Dana Talbert, director of the Student Success Center.
At the University of South Carolina, how do we define the terms “first-generation” and “low-income”?
AC: Our campus defines first-generation students as students whose parents don’t have a four-year college degree. So even if a parent has gone to a community college or has an associate degree, their child would still be considered a first-generation student.
JD: A lot of times, for low-income students, we look at students who are Pell Grant-eligible as low-income, but what we’re finding now is that it’s really extending to our middle-income folks. If you look at how much college costs, they are struggling just as much as those students at the very bottom of the income bracket.
AC: Although these things sometimes intersect, you can be low-income and not be first-generation, and you can be firstgeneration and not low-income. They don’t always intersect.
How are these students’ college experiences different from those of other students?
AC: First-generation students are those whose parents haven’t gone to college, so they don’t always have a point of reference.
JD: What we find is that college is hard anyway, but what low-income students have is an additional stressor in the fact that they are not sure if they can afford to be here. That’s an additional high-level stressor that’s always present, and so it has a tendency to dissuade them from attending college, or at the very least dissuade them from their studies.
AC: If they’re coming from S.C., in really rural areas, there’s a higher probability that they didn’t have access to AP courses to help prepare them for the challenges of college courses. So we provide them with support and smaller classes to show them that they can do this academically. If they are a lowincome student, we try to provide them enough financial aid so they don’t feel as if they have to work 40 hours a week, which would definitely distract them from their academics.
DT: I think, too, that navigating campus can be very challenging when you’re on a new campus with 30,000 students, and there’s all of these different offices and you don’t know where to go. So that can be very challenging when you’re thinking about academics, you’re thinking about financial factors on top of all that; not knowing who to go to for what can be tough.
JD: And they don’t want people to know they’re struggling. They don’t want to be seen as anything different, because they’re not. They got in here on their own merits, and there isn’t anything different about them. How do your areas contribute to their success?
AC: The Opportunity Scholars Program under the TRIO umbrella has been on campus since 1972, so it has had years of service provided to students, and our goal as a federally funded entity is to bring students in, provide support for them and see them graduate with a degree. Our funding is based on our percentages of students who graduate with a degree from the university. We do that through finance, academics and social support. We have program components in those areas to support those students.
DT: We do a lot with the academics portion of their success. We partner directly with OSP to make sure certain courses have Supplemental Instruction leaders and additional tutoring opportunities for particularly challenging subjects and courses. We’ve also just launched this year math progress reports where we started working with the math faculty in certain courses that allow the instructors to provide us with information on if the students are at risk to fail the course or if there is an attendance issue, so we know how we can intervene with those students to make sure they are successful on campus. All of the OSP and Carolina Advantage students are also required to take a money management consultation to focus on the financial literacy piece.
JD: For us, it’s not just finances, but it is a lot of it. We have a limited amount of aid that we can give out in scholarships and loans. We always try to make sure the neediest students get what they need in our programs. It doesn’t always cover the entire bill, but we do what we can to get them to where we need to be. And then for specific populations, like the Gamecock Guarantee, we have staff assigned to help them. We try to make sure we are always accessible and available to them and always have staff on hand to meet with them in person, over the phone or over email. We want to let them know that even if they start out OK, they can still come to us for help if things change.
You mentioned Carolina Advantage and Gamecock Guarantee. Tell me more about those programs.
JD: It has been over 10 years now since we first made the Gamecock Guarantee program to help our lowest-income, first-generation college students who were struggling here at UofSC. These students are at 150 percent or less of the poverty level and can be categorized as Pell Grant recipients, first-generation and S.C. residents. We identify about 720 of them every year, and we provide financial support for them, while Althea and her staff provide academic support for them, which I argue is more important than our work.
AC: You can’t be here without the money, though! But yes, once the Gamecock Guarantee students are identified, they have to go into one of three programs: Opportunity Scholars, Honors College or Capstone Scholars. We have paired the financial award with program support because we find that we can give the money, but in order for students to persist and stay in school, they need more than just the financial support. Somebody once told me, “Access without support is not a real opportunity.” So you can grant all of the access, but if you’re not providing the support for them while there here, they’re probably not going to be able to graduate, and that’s our goal here. We offer support and, paired with Dana’s office, provide Supplemental Instruction, tutoring, financial literacy, mentoring and cultural event planning in the hopes to get them really integrated into the campus culture. We try to push them to do research and to study abroad, all of those things, so they know that they can do anything that a non-first-generation student can do. We actually had an overflow in numbers of people who qualified for Gamecock Guarantee, and Dana can talk about the program we made to accommodate them.
DT: This year’s the first year we’ve offered the Carolina Advantage program because we had more students that qualified for the Gamecock Guarantee program than Althea’s program can handle. What those students received was a little bit less of a scholarship to the university, but it is some additional support that we know would improve our retention efforts. So those students, 28 to be exact, started this fall, and, from orientation until now, we continue to meet with them as often as we can. We found that students who attended three or more student success consultations in our office were more successful than those who didn’t, and all of our students are coming back this spring. We are continuing to support them throughout their four years.
Are there other campus support systems for first-generation and low-income students?
AC: From housing to academics to social support, there is usually someone who can offer support from every office that can work with us to meet the needs of these students, and if there isn’t a partnership already forged, people are usually pretty willing to work with us to make that happen.
JD: There’s been a movement in the last couple years where the faculty members are choosing to identify if they are first-generation on their door so students who are first-gen and may feel isolated and alone can realize their professor is a first-gen and will be more willing to talk to them. So that’s a secondary tool to help them not feel like they are alone.
DT: Each of the colleges has also reached out to us to make sure they are covering their bases on who they are collaborating with, and everyone knows that it is important to support and collaborate for these students with all the resources they have.
JD: The university is also looking at every possible way to get more funding for these students from any possible source — from internally, donors, the federal government and the state, all of those areas — to try and bring in more assistance for our students.
Anything else you want to add?
JD: One of those questions I get asked from time to time that they probably don’t like the answer I give them is, “How do we know who they are?” Well the answer is that you don’t, and you shouldn’t need to. That has nothing to do with their ability here at the university, and you shouldn’t single them out or treat them any differently. They know to come to us when they need help, so you don’t need to look for them.
AC: I think we talk a lot about what their needs are, but these students come with a lot of strengths as well. When you talk about the things that could make them withdraw, instead I think of their grit and tenacity. These are students who are willing to work for this because they’re used to that kind of background. Their families are very proud even if some don’t know very much about the college process. I always see families so happy to grab that sticker from orientation that says “UofSC mom” or “UofSC dad” and wear it proudly. The students are very intelligent, and they are willing to work and learn.