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The University of South Dakota’s TRIO Student Support Services is like all other federally funded TRIO SSS programs in that it serves low-income, first-generation or disabled students. Similarly, it offers tutoring and assistance with choosing courses, applying for financial aid, building financial literacy and applying to graduate programs. But an innovative first-year experience program is central to USD’s TRIO approach.

Impact on persistence: Beyond the basic TRIO requirements, USD’s SSS program offers an original first-year experience, which staff members say contributes to program participants’ high persistence rate. How high? Ninety-four percent, compared to 69 percent for USD students with similar backgrounds who are not enrolled in TRIO. Staff members also say TRIO program participants’ good academic standing rate is 96 percent, compared to an institutional baseline of 82 percent.

“TRIO SSS is a federal program, so many projects exist nationwide,” explains Dallas Doane, USD’s TRIO SSS director. “Our first-year experience program really is unique, though. It gives us a common intellectual experience and academic component in providing our services. Additionally, we know for the students we serve—first-generation, income-eligible and students with disabilities—that feeling a sense of belonging can make or break their persistence.”

TRIO Trivia

The federally funded TRIO program, which offers programs beyond Student Support Services, considers itself the originator of the first-generation concept. In a 2021 interview published in the Journal of First-Generation Student Success, council president Maureen Hoyler and Arnold Mitchem, president emeritus, say that the term has its roots in the 1980 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Ahead of that legislation, Mitchem says, TRIO educators were asked to put together recommendations, including TRIO eligibility criteria. Income alone proved problematic given differing costs of living across the country, they say, and educators rejected the loaded terms “culturally disadvantaged” or “rurally isolated.” “First-generation” was suggested, and it stuck. Hoyler adds, “The term was introduced to promote change and to produce equity and to produce a recognition of individuals’ potential that may not have had their potential recognized without the term.”

What the experience includes: Supports for this population of students cover a number of areas within the first year.

  • Early orientation: As part of the first-year experience, USD TRIO SSS students arrive on campus three days early for what Doane calls a “college boot camp.” The goal? For students to “connect with each other, learn about college success, learn about resources and engage with the community.” (TRIO SSS at USD also partners with an orientation program from the university’s Native Student Services.)
  • Registration: USD TRIO students register for classes with a program staff member on their first day on campus.
  • First-year experience course: In addition to the boot camp, TRIO staff members meet with students weekly throughout the fall semester as part of a first-year course. Topics include study skills, mental health, financial literacy and embracing their strengths, and students attend a financial aid workshop and volunteer with USD’s on-campus food pantry.
  • Fundamentals of communication course: In the spring semester, the communication studies department offers a TRIO-specific section of a required speech course. This continues the cohort-based learning from the fall, Doane says.
  • A second chance: Last spring, TRIO at USD offered for the first time a course for students who underperformed academically during the fall term. The idea is to focus not only on academics but also on student well-being, and the course includes three individual success meetings with staff members.
  • Peer education: All these supports are enhanced by a peer educator program—upper-class students paired with a first-year student, Doane says.

The need: Kimberly Jones, executive vice president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, says research shows that “for all students, regardless of what income you’re coming from, the first few weeks of your experiences of undergraduate are determinative of whether you're going to sink or swim. And so TRIO especially makes it a priority to grab ahold of those young people, and sometimes not-so-young people, early.”

Jones’s favored analogy for TRIO? “You can give a 16-year-old a pair of car keys, but if you don’t give them driving lessons, they’re not going anywhere,” she says. So by supporting new college students “intentionally, aggressively and early on, we’re helping give them the tools to succeed.”

Another benefit of TRIO is community. Jones explains, “For students, especially if you're first gen, no one else in your family can tell you what it's like to be on a college campus and talk to professors, or about the syllabus and the registrar’s office. So TRIO gives you a community that’s going through that experience with you. It gives you a home base on campus where you can just go and feel safe for a minute.”

Jones adds that because the federal guidelines for a what a TRIO program must include are somewhat limited, it becomes “incumbent upon the project directors and their staff to be innovative.”

Does your campus have an innovative approach to federally funded TRIO programs? A notable first-year experience program? Tell us about it.

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