A First-Generation Residence

In twist on the theme house concept, U. of Cincinnati focuses on first-generation, low-income freshmen.
January 21, 2009

The Gen-1 Theme House can be a hard sell. Residents must sign a contract committing to a strict guest policy (guests of the opposite gender are barred from the bedroom; overnight guests must be approved), an alcohol-free residence and, yes, a curfew.

“I told my mom I wasn’t going to move in at all because I didn’t want anybody to tell me what to do – especially someone who’s not my mom. But then I thought about it and I realized there’s more to life,” says Kirsten Lewis, a freshman at University of Cincinnati and a (once) reluctant Gen-1 Theme House resident. “A lot of the opportunities I’ve had I would not have had if I did not move into the house.” Like what?

“My first quarter was a little hard," Lewis explains. "There were a lot of outside distractions from Cincinnati, a lot of the things that go on in my hometown I’m still a part of; I had to cut a lot of that off.... Over the holiday break, Judy got me a meeting with one of the head professors of my program, my athletic training program, so I can meet with her and get back on track.”

Judy, if you're wondering, is Judy Mause, the program coordinator of the new Gen-1 Theme House, for first-generation, Pell Grant-eligible (i.e. low-income), full-time freshmen at Cincinnati. Judy is also a sherpa of sorts.

“The program has developed into a very hands-on, personalized attempt to kind of be the sherpa for each one of these students,” says Mause, a former teacher in the Cincinnati Public Schools. “I use that analogy a lot because we’ve been to the mountain; we can see the telltale signs. Sometimes even with the sherpas, the client will say, no, 'I want to push on,' regardless of what the person with expertise tells them.”

While theme residences are common at colleges, the focus on first-generation students in such a setting is unusual. “Having some kind of commitment from the student in terms of a contract, having a very structured first year – I think the research supports them in some of these efforts,” says Jennifer Engle, the assistant director of higher education at Education Trust. "Everything shows that first-generation students in particular benefit even more than their peers by increased student engagement -- increased engagement on campus, increased engagement with faculty, increased engagement with staff."

Engle previously was interim director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, where she co-authored a 2008 report with recommendations for promoting success among low-income, first-generation college students. One idea was to offer structured, first-year programs that "scale down" the college experience, giving students "personalized attention from staff and a place to connect with supportive peers who share common backgrounds and experiences." Simply living on campus is also associated with higher rates of college success.

At Cincinnati, 14 students are living in the Tudor-style house, which has room for 24 (a 15th resident joined a fraternity and has moved out – but, program staff stress, remains enrolled). All are traditional-aged and from Ohio; 8 are female, 6 are male; and the residents are mostly minorities: 12 are African-American, 1 is Hispanic, and 1 is white.

A graduate assistant lives in the house (program management, however, does not). Rent for the freshmen is $511 a month for a double room, $611 for a single, and students can work as tutoring assistants for public school students to defray some of the cost. (Costs are pretty comparable to rent for UC dorms, which, for the academic year, ranges from $5,523 for multiple occupancy accommodations to $6,930 for single room suites.) There are house meetings and occasional house dinners and, always, grab-and-go breakfast foods (students are encouraged to be on a university meal plan). Mause teaches a credit-bearing college success course that’s based at the house, but regularly meets on campus where various student services are located.

“When we first started to design and initially implement this concept, we thought we were going to have to be providing these direct services and programs ourselves -- and came to realize the University of Cincinnati has done an incredible job of having tons of support programs and services already in place,” says Bob Suess, the project director. “And what we discovered was a lot of students who weren’t successful were not aware of and were not accessing those services. We quickly realized we did not need to reinvent the wheel here.”

A number of outside experts were generally supportive of the concept Cincinnati is trying, although they raised issues to keep in mind, including a need to maintain close ties with these students once they become sophomores (which Mause says she absolutely intends to do), and a potential for stigmatization.

“I don’t know if students find it stigmatizing in terms of first-generation; I think labeling yourself as low-income is perhaps more stigmatizing,” says Engle, of Ed Trust. “It’s not a reason not to do programs like that, but it’s something to be sensitive to.”

“I think there’s always a trade-off when you do a themed housing situation because what you’re doing is bringing people together that have common interests. In a way, that really engages them. But on the other hand, it does reduce the amount of diversity, diversity of thought, diversity of situation, diversity of ethnic and socioeconomic background…there’s going to be a trade-off. It’s just a choice that people make as to which is more important,” says Mary Stuart Hunter, assistant vice provost and executive director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, at the University of South Carolina.

She adds, however, “I commend them for what they’re trying to do [at Cincinnati]. I think it sounds pretty neat.”

Stephanie Cappel, executive director of Partner for Achieving School Success, the university center that runs the Gen-1 Theme House, says they came up with the idea last May, while at a meeting held at a service learning theme house. “We were there and thought -- we want a house.”

Plans progressed rapidly. In August, they signed a facilities use agreement for the residence, which, while considered off-campus housing this year, will be absorbed by the university by next, Cappel says. They hired Mause as program coordinator. They sent a letter to incoming freshmen informing them of the new living opportunity. The letter lays out some “startling and disturbing facts,” including, “Most students who start college never finish,” “The college drop-out rate is highest among first-year students,” and “The first-year drop-out rate is highest among: First-generation college students… Pell-eligible students… Non-residential students.”

Given the late start (the letter is dated August 1), Cappel says she’s thrilled by the number of students attracted to the house in its first year. In terms of changes for the second, she mainly wants to raise funds to offset students' costs. “We’ve got some kids out working at whatever, shoe shores, places like that, and with their time on those things, they’re not spending as much time on school as middle-class kids. It’s not the model that I want. So if I can get it fully funded where I can offset kids' rent and meal plans and things like that, that's definitely something I want to change for next year."

In interviews, program staff do describe some resistance to the house rules, especially the curfew (midnight on weeknights, 3 a.m. on weekends).

“We’ve had to have some conversations. Frankly, first-quarter grades were a wakeup call for some of the ones that wanted more freedom,” says Cappel. “You look at their grades and you say, well, really?

“My goal is that 100 percent of our students remain enrolled and finish out their freshman year, that we don’t lose any of them. Every one of my kids, every one of these residents, students, every one of them is going to make it through this freshman year, the whole year, and make it through with at least a C," says Cappel.

“I know that may not be a high enough average for some people and a lot of our kids will do a lot better, but [for] some of our kids, getting a C is going to be really wonderful.

“Now, the house average, I think, can be a B.”


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