Between 35,000 and 40,000 students will graduate from Utah’s public high schools this year. Fewer than half of high school graduates will obtain a college degree in six years.
The disconnect between high school’s cocoon and the wide open world of college can be particularly difficult for first-generation college students, who don’t have a familial history of higher-education experience on which to rely, according to Kevin Miller, director of Student Conduct and Support Services for Salt Lake Community College.
“A lot of times,” Miller said, “a student, brand new to college, won’t even realize the questions they need answers to.” While Utah’s college-readiness numbers may be low, the state’s higher-education aspirations are high.
Just a fourth of students hit the ACT’s college-ready benchmark scores, but a student survey that accompanies the test found that 86 percent of Utah’s 2014 graduates intended to enroll in post-secondary education.
In his role at SLCC, Miller oversees a program that pairs student mentors with incoming freshmen to provide guidance and support.
He is also involved with the Bridge program, a partnership between SLCC and the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center that familiarizes high school seniors with the resources of a college campus through a class hosted at SLCC.
“We want them to have a solid footing under them,” Miller said, “so they’re ready to do that college-level work and be successful.”
Tony Hernandez, a student in the Bridge class, said he never thought he would graduate from high school. His mother died of cancer when he was 10 years old. And when Hernandez starts classes at SLCC this fall, he’ll be the first member of his family to attend college. He eventually hopes to study music engineering.
“I’m doing this for my mom,” he said. “She always dreamed of me going to college.”
Andrea Alvarez, another Bridge student, said she felt “mostly” ready for college. But she expects some subjects will be more challenging than others.
“I’m going to take math and English [first],” she said, “because my brother said those are the classes you need to get out of the way.”
At SLCC, Miller said most students take eight or nine credits each semester, which stretches what would normally be a two-year associate-degree program to three to five years.
Added to the cost of extra semesters, Utahns are known for leaving financial aid money on the table.
Only 34 percent of high school seniors complete a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the lowest percentage of any state, according to a report released in March by the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education.
Students who complete the Bridge program receive a scholarship from Horizonte, and Hernandez said the class also helps participants file a FAFSA and look for other scholarship opportunities.
“They helped me a lot,” Hernandez said. “Hopefully, by the time we’re done with this Bridge class, I’ll be ready.”
Photo: Bridge class participants (Horizonte Scholarship recipients) received computers for college from the Assistance League of Salt Lake City.