This fall, the University of New Mexico welcomed its largest freshman class since 2013, with a record 27% of them being first-generation students, meaning students who are the first in their family to attend university. Unfortunately, only 26% of first-generation students in the United States will complete college, compared to 70% of students from college-educated families. Having been a first-generation college student, I know from experience that the college environment can make or break a student’s chances of success.
Signing up for classes, finding course materials, or deciphering terms like “office hours” can be overwhelming. It’s easy to misinterpret even a well-meaning suggestion to “seek tutoring” as doubting a student’s potential. Add to that the stress of financial insecurity, caring for a family member, or juggling work and school, and it’s easy to see why these students may not be equipped to make their lessons a priority.
One of our obligations as New Mexico’s flagship university is to provide a learning environment that fosters self-confidence and supports academic success for all students. We start by setting a high academic bar and – drawing on the principles of the Growth Mindset – assuring students that we believe they can grow and be successful if they put in the effort and focus. rely on our support structure. We then provide resources inside and outside the classroom, from carefully designed exam preparation to access to our pantries.
Sometimes it’s the smallest of things that can have the biggest influence on academic performance. For example, faculty can “decode” for students, explaining that “office hours” is a time for students to ask questions. Or they can create classroom activities that help students identify well-known scientists, researchers, or artists who share their own backgrounds or experiences. While these tactics seem simple, they’re grounded in decades of evidence-based practices to develop a mindset of growth and belonging.
Over the past three years, through our alliance with the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, UNM faculty have collaborated with the National Student Experience Project (SEP) to enhance the experience of our university students using these evidence-based practices. And it works. Last fall, SEP tools helped students increase their A and B pass rates by 10% while reducing failures and dropouts. And those first-generation students? They were more likely to receive As’s and B’s and less likely to fail or drop out of class than first-generation students in similar non-SEP classes.
So far, 135 UNM teachers have become SEP teachers, and many more of our 3,000 teachers are waiting in the wings. U.S. Senator from New Mexico Martin Heinrich has worked with his colleagues to establish an unprecedented college retention and completion fund to support innovative, evidence-based programs like SEP that empower students to get their degree.
We are fortunate that New Mexico students can have their tuition fully covered by generous state scholarships. But we also know that tuition alone is not enough to guarantee graduation. It takes a commitment to creating an inclusive environment where everyone believes students belong and can succeed.
Garnett S. Stokes is the 23rd president of the University of New Mexico and the first in his family to attend the university.