A $35,000 grant Villa Maria College recently received from the St. Francis Fund of Felician Services Inc., will be used to address the problems of access to a college education and persistence to graduation for low-income and at-risk students, with a focus on Buffalo's East Side and its large immigrant and refugee population.
Specifically, Villa Maria will use the grant funds to hire an additional academic coach/student success coordinator for its Student Success Center. In collaboration with Buffalo's Response To Love Center, a mission serving many of Buffalo's poorest residents, the coordinator will pilot a series of 14 workshops in the Response To Love Center's Sisters School, which offers programs to help students attain a graduate equivalency degree and participate in TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion, a national high school equivalency assessment and training program.
Workshops are designed to help students become familiar and more comfortable with the process and expectations of attending college. They will be held at the Response To Love Center and will culminate in a visit to Villa's campus.
"Education is key to escaping poverty," said Villa Maria College's president, Sister Marcella Marie Garus, CSSF. "The difference in income levels with education has grown significantly over the years, and studies show the gap will only continue to widen. Villa Maria has, for years, placed emphasis on removing the barriers that prevent the disadvantaged from not only entering college, but also persisting through to graduation. This grant will go a long way toward enhancing our current programs and helping Buffalo's low-income population achieve the dream of a college degree."
The overall goal is to help determine if college is right for these students and, if so, ensure their readiness through the use of programs, tutors and mentors.
"Villa Maria and the Response To Love Center both have experience working with low-income populations, so this is a natural fit for both organizations," commented Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz, CSSF, director of the Response To Love Center. "I look forward to partnering with Villa to reach out and better the lives of the many who deserve this opportunity.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the unemployment rate steadily drops with higher levels of education. Low-income individuals, and/or first generation students wishing to obtain a post-secondary degree, face numerous challenges. For many, the search, application and financial aid processes alone are daunting, if not overwhelming. For those who do enter college, there are additional challenges. Students in poverty have a significantly decreased likelihood of completing a college degree when compared to their middle class and wealthy counterparts.
Addressing the educational needs of low-income individuals is directly linked to Villa's mission to provide students a rigorous and enriching educational experience and its vision to become the premier student-centered college in Western New York. The school has put significant initiatives in place for first year students, in particular, low income, at-risk students, and has realized positive results from its efforts.
Overall, first- to second-year retention has increased by almost nine percent. From fall 2013 to fall 2016, Villa saw a 17 percent increase in students who are in good academic standing and achieved a GPA of 2.0 or higher after their first semester. But there currently is limited ability to ease the transition to sophomore year for students. Research, while limited, shows this is not an uncommon problem.
"Developmentally, the sophomore year is a time of significant growth, perhaps more so than the first year of college, yet the sophomore year is considered a vulnerable period for students," said Dr. Agnes Zak-Moskal, director of student success at Villa Maria.