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How UC Merced is Helping More First-Generation Students Complete Degrees

By Juan Sánchez Muñoz

Dr. Juan Sánchez Muñoz is chancellor of the University of California, Merced

The University of California, Merced — the youngest campus in the storied UC system — was built in California’s Central Valley to educate the sons and daughters of one of the nation’s most fertile regions and fastest-growing states. Nearly 75 percent of our students are first-generation, and more than 80 percent are members of historically under-represented groups— truly, the future of California and the country are being educated at UC Merced.

But driving successful student outcomes takes more than just being here. UC Merced has carefully shaped programs and hired committed professionals to ensure our Bobcats fulfill the hopes they and their families have built for their futures. One of these programs is Fiat Lux — Latin for “let there be light,” the motto of the University of California.

The goal of the Fiat Lux Scholars Program, a living-learning community, is to empower, support and connect students at UC Merced through a structured system of resources and intrusive advising that promotes campus engagement, familiarizes participants with the culture of higher education, and motivates them to achieve academically and persist in college.

First-year students eligible for inclusion are those whose parents do not have four-year degrees and who are eligible for Pell or Cal grants with zero expected family contributions. Incoming students are ranked by high school GPA and selected in descending order to reach our program cap of 150. Fiat Lux Scholars are guaranteed a $20,000 minimum aid per year for four years of program participation and are guaranteed access to four years of on-campus housing. Fiat Lux continues during this difficult year in the virtual world, but retains the same criteria for eligibility and participation, the same financial aid guarantees and the same powerful system of mentoring by professional staff and student peers. It is one of the virtual Dens in which UC Merced’s Bobcats are kept informed, engaged and on track in a world of physical distancing.

Two strong indicators of the program’s success are second-year retention and GPA. Compared to a similar cohort (students eligible for Fiat Lux who chose not to participate), first- to second-year retention for Fiat Lux Scholars was 6 percent higher, at 92 percent, and first-year GPA was 3.17, compared to 2.78 for the comparator group. Data from the 2016 and 2017 first-year cohorts showed similar second-year retention and GPA comparisons with similarly situated cohorts.

Fiat Lux is of course only one strand in our rich tapestry of student success efforts; another is the culture of undergraduate involvement in research. In 2020, US News marked UC Merced as no. 11 among all public universities for undergraduate participation in research or creative projects. This culture is facilitated by our Undergraduate Research Opportunity Center, which connects students with research-intensive faculty to engage jointly in the advancement and creation of knowledge.

Not only is this a distinguishing facet of the UC Merced bachelor’s degree, it sparks undergraduates’ drive to continue education past the B.S. or B.A. We are the No. 1 campus in the UC system for undergraduates who go on to a UC master’s degree and tied at No. 2 for those who earn a UC doctorate.

The Fiat Lux Scholars Program, a culture of undergraduate research and strong faculty engagement are among the reasons US News has ranked us the No. 1 public university for outperforming predicted graduation rates, fifth in the nation for creating social mobility, a top 100 university and top 40 for publics. In fact, UC Merced is the only public and only research university with more than 60 percent of students Pell-eligible and a graduation rate above 60 percent.

One of our goals is to change the face of higher education — so that future students are taught more and more by those whose journeys paralleled their own. Starting with programs like Fiat Lux and others, we are empowering our young people to shine even more brightly through the bachelor’s degree and beyond.

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