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UCSB First-Gens on the Rise

44 Percent of Freshman Class Is First-Generation Students


Of the new crop of UC Santa Barbara freshmen, 44 percent are first-generation college students, an 11 percent increase over the past decade. Neither parent of first-gen students, as they at times call themselves, earned a four-year degree. They come from various racial or ethnic backgrounds, and many are low income.

Last month, UCSB received a five-year $2.6 million grant after it was designated a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) ​— ​8 percent more Latinos enrolled in the last decade ​— ​challenging its long-time reputation as a school for the rich and white. In addition, the university ranked third in a New York Times review of top colleges’ efforts on economic diversity.

“It’s like mowing the lawn,” said Chancellor Henry Yang, who has been at the helm for more than 20 years, when asked how the school was able to increase its diverse population. “You just persistently never become complacent. It has become a culture of this campus, which is do it every day.”

To some extent, the population at UCSB reflects the diversity of the high school graduation rates in the state. “That’s a good thing,” said David Marshall, who is the executive vice chancellor. “There are more UC-eligible students out there.” Marshall added diverse populations are in a way self-perpetuating. “It builds on itself,” he said. As of press time, the calculation of first-generation students at each UC had not been finalized

The $500,000 annual grant will focus on freshmen, particularly those in 41 courses identified as difficult. Further, graduate student tutoring programs, summer enrichment programs, and faculty development will be put in place to bolster retention rates ​— ​long considered a challenge for underrepresented students. Of the first-generation freshmen cohort from 2010, 65 percent graduated in four years whereas 71 percent of non-first-generation students earned their diploma in four years.

UCSB students say college can be challenging, especially for first-gen students who start in courses virtually designed to weed people out. “Being a first-generation student, you don’t have a mentor in your family,” said Natalia Valle, a third-year first-gen student who is from West Adams in Los Angeles. Valle, who works at the campus bookstore, acknowledged resources such as laptops at the library or CLAS (Campus Learning Assistance Services) existed, but she wished more were available. Despite UCSB’s designation as an HSI, Valle said when she first arrived, she thought, “Wow, I’ve never seen this many white people in my life.” She added, “I did find my group, but it took a while.”

Little disposable income makes college life tough, students said. “Everyone can adopt the ‘I’m a college student and I’m broke’ mindset and not be ashamed, but being broke for one person might be, ‘I can’t go to a music festival, or [for another] ‘I am eating ramen noodles every day,’” said Alfonzo, a third-year English major who asked to be identified only by his first name. Originally from Riverside, Alfonzo said there was little encouragement at his high school to go out of the area for college. In fact, 59 percent of freshmen enrollees at UC Riverside are from homes within a 50-mile radius, according to UC records.

In contrast, just 3 percent of UCSB freshmen enrolled last year were from homes within a 50-mile radius from the Santa Barbara campus. Admissions director Lisa Przekop said that in her experience, many local students, like students everywhere, look to go out of town for college to experience something new.

UCSB housing has been the talk around town since the university announced in July the purchase of three Tropicana properties, which will eventually function as university-run dorms. A Trustee Report completed last fall recommended the university take an active role in Isla Vista by acquiring more housing, a controversial topic because the purchase eventually will take the properties off the area tax rolls.

The university currently has one master lease ​— ​Westwinds Apartments—and the property remains on the tax rolls. When asked if the university is looking to acquire more master leases, Chuck Haines, who is the director of Capital Development, said UCSB is not “actively pursuing any master leases in present” because of Tropicana. “But certainly it’s something we would consider in the future,” he said. “It’s got to be of a certain size for it to really make sense. A small one- or two-unit does not provide us something big in the grand scheme, so we would be looking at larger complexes.”

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