A new grant from the U.S. Department of Education will help the University of California, Merced, establish important support services for first-generation and low-income students who have yet to declare a major.
The grant, totaling $1.09 million over five years, will launch the Strengthening Talents and Exploring Pathways (STEP) program. STEP will be part of the Calvin E. Bright Success Center’s existing Fiat Lux program, which serves underrepresented students at UC Merced.
Bright Success Center Director Elizabeth Boretz said the funding will be used to address the needs of second-year students, because the transition from the first year to the second is critical. Nationwide, two-thirds of students who drop out do so in their sophomore year, and 75 percent of those who drop out in their second year never complete their degrees.
“The idea of student support services is creating programs that help promote degree completion, student persistence and timeliness of degree completion among low-income, first-generation students,” Boretz said. “It is a way of taking what we are already doing and building another arm out from there just for the undeclared.”
The goals for the STEP program include increasing the retention rate by 5 percent and increasing the four-year graduation rate from 37.6 percent to 50 percent among students eligible for the program, while ensuring each STEP scholar has declared a major by his or her junior year.
After analyzing institutional data, Boretz determined there is a significant need for the campus to further support undeclared, first-generation students who come from low-income, households. Campus data show that undeclared students face academic dismissal at two to three times the rate of peers who have declared a major.
While some elements for the program will be in place at the start of the academic year, the program should be in full swing by the end of the fall semester, when a STEP coordinator and a counselor have been hired.
Boretz said the campus’s underrepresented students already get special attention through the Fiat Lux Scholars program, which focuses mainly on first-year students. However, the new STEP program will create an even stronger community for undeclared second-year students.
“I think they will know how much we believe in them and that we are noticing that they are special and that they merit the extra attention,” she said. “The more programs you have, the more ways students can find help to get what they need.”