Leland introduces initiatives to help underserved students go to college

As part of a special White House summit Thursday, UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland on Thursday unveiled six new initiatives to help underserved students attend college and be successful at the Central Valley campus.

Leland joined 100 college and university presidents and the leaders of more than 40 nonprofit and other education groups at the White House to meet with officials from the National Economic Policy Council and the Department of Education. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were also in attendance.

The president urged university and college leaders to copy each other’s best examples to expand access to higher education. “More than ever a college degree is the surest path to a stable middle-class life,” Obama told them. Both the president and the first lady spoke in personal terms, saying they benefited from a national commitment to expand opportunities for young people that led them to attend elite universities such as Harvard and Princeton. But they said the current economy makes a college education even more essential.

To be invited to Thursday’s summit, each campus had to submit a list of new programs designed to assist low-income and undocumented students improve their rates for attending college and graduating.

UC Merced serves predominantly low-income students: 60 percent of undergraduates are Pell grant recipients and 62 percent are first-generation students, according to a UC Merced news release.

“We are already committed to these students’ success. It’s in our campus DNA,” Leland said in a news release. “So we are proud not only to show what we’ve accomplished in the first nine academic years, but to reveal our plans to continue elevating the future of this region and the state.”

UC Merced has a number of programs to aid the underserved, including the Fiat Lux Scholars Program that has served 368 students so far during their first two years on campus. UC Merced also offers free tutoring, a first-year success course, special academic workshops and midsemester grades for all first- and second-year students. Financial gifts also support undocumented, or Dream Act, students.

Leland said in the release she hopes that networking with others at the White House summit will lead to other ways to reach and support low-income, underserved students.

According to to the release, the new UC Merced initiatives unveiled Thursday include:

• Providing $460,000 in new funds to expand help to undocumented students. The money goes to special career and academic advising, increasing employment opportunities on campus, additional staff time to assist with admissions and academic transitions, and to develop a new website with links to on- and off-campus services specifically for undocumented students. In 2013-14, UC Merced enrolled 152 undocumented students with an average family income of $23,000 a year.

• Launching a $150,000 program to locate a career-development coordinator in the Silicon Valley to place 300 low-income, first-generation students in internships and jobs with venture-backed Silicon Valley and Bay Area companies.

• Enhancing academic support to the 49 percent of UC Merced students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math fields. UC Merced identified more than $100,000 in additional funds for its recently opened STEM Resource Center. The center coordinates tutoring and mentoring, research and internship opportunities, as well as advising for graduate school and careers for undergraduates.

• Inviting low-income high school seniors from across the Central Valley to attend a one-day College and Career Readiness Conference. The goal is to help more than 100 students make a seamless transition from high school to higher education. They’ll learn how to understand and compare financial aid award letters and make educated decisions about the best post-secondary options.

• Implementing a new program for about 100 foster youths. These students will receive intensive advising, year-round campus housing, special mentoring and educational programming. Foster youths have one of the lowest rates of college attainment, particularly acute in the Valley.

• Expanding efforts to improve financial literacy and minimize loan defaults. UC Merced will reach out to students about loan repayment options, work with families to reduce the need for loans, implement a website focused on money-management resources and collaborate with Merced College, school districts and the Merced County Office of Education to coordinate and leverage financial aid outreach events across the county.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.