Jonathan Wickert, two ISU students and representatives from 10 other universities will present their program in Washington D.C. on how to help low-income and first-generation graduates with degrees.

The University Innovation Alliance — which was created by 11 major research universities including Oregon State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Purdue University and Iowa State — will focus on retention rates for low-income and first-generation students.

The alliance will match the $5.6 million that it has already raised in order to create a dialogue between the universities about programs and innovations that are already used at individual universities to help raise retention.

“If you look at our nation’s workforce needs and you look at all the talented young people out there who want college degrees, it’s clear that we can do more to help those students achieve their dreams and help them be successful and complete those degrees,” Wickert said.

Wickert, senior vice president and provost, said President Steven Leath has championed the “very noble cause.” The project will play out over three to five years, but the universities are already collaborating.

“What’s really special about the alliance is that the universities have committed to sharing between themselves the good ideas they have and the innovations that work,” Wickert said. “Instead of competing against one another, Iowa State and the other 10 schools have agreed to work together on something that fundamentally benefits students.”

One of the innovations that Iowa State may implement is using predictive analytics to see how students will perform in their classes and provide them with advising tools that will help them determine which majors in which they would be successful. This innovation is already in place in other universities. 

One of the innovations Wickert said Iowa State plans to share with the other schools is the university’s plan for learning communities, something Wickert said Iowa State does well.

Alma Marquez, senior in chemical and biological engineering, is one of the students accompanying Wickert to the nation's capitol. She will represent ISU students for the alliance. Marquez, a graduate of East High School in Des Moines and a first-generation college student, said the learning communities were integral part to her success.

“I definitely believe that being a part of the learning community helps students get acclimated to Iowa State, and they help with that transition and their overall college success,” said Marquez, a peer mentor for the past two years.

Marquez was first involved in the Leadership Through Engineering Academic Diversity learning community that celebrates and helps multicultural students in engineering be successful. There have been times when she’s been discouraged, Marquez said, but the peers in her learning community propped her up.

Marquez said the learning communities are more crucial than ever for students to take advantage of because of fewer opportunities to interact with instructors. Learning communities provide a chance to work with peers and mentors and they give students an opportunity to learn about the resources available for them on campus.

“As a lot of us know, Iowa State has record enrollment. It’s even harder now in the classrooms because the classrooms are so much bigger now,” Marquez said. “[Learning communities] open a lot of doors.”

Wickert said that throughout the initial sharing processes with the other universities, the focus will remain on the success of students who may be at risk of not graduating because they do not have the support or resources they need.

“In some cases, it may be that a student is the first one in his or her family to go to college. In that case, making the transition to university life has a lot of pieces to it," Wickert said. "There’s a financial piece, a studying piece, lifestyle."

As a first-generation student herself, Marquez said she believes the alliance will be a tremendous benefit for students such as herself that face challenges others don't.

“Even with students that already have that background — where their parents are educated or they’re familiar with higher education — even those students run into issues. Even more so for students who are underrepresented and disadvantaged because they don’t have that higher educational background," Marquez said. "It’s an even higher risk for them to not only graduate high school and go to college but to actually stay in college and get through it.”

Marquez said that while her family is always supportive of her goals, it doesn’t understand the day-to-day struggles of college students and how to handle financial aid that low-income students will need. The University Innovation Alliance will help to create resources for those students, she said.

“At the end of the day it’s about student success," Wickert said. "We want to make sure that all students on campus have a smooth transition to university life, that they succeed in their classes, that they choose a major that they’re interested in and that they meet the requirements and graduate."

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