Act 101 budget cuts decrease aid for first-generation college students

Quyen Nguyen, Correspondent

Future first-generation college students may no longer benefit from the Act 101 program due to a 70 percent state budget cut that has occurred within the last three years.

Act 101 has been a state-funded program since 1971. It is intended to benefit first-year and first-generation college students. Thomas J. Thomas, the executive director of student affairs, proudly articulated that the Wilkes University Act 101 program’s goal is to increase the number of first- generation college graduates by providing them with the guidance necessary for them to reach their academic goals.

Wilkes University first started its Act 101 program in 1976, and Thomas has been involved with this program for the last 12 years in addition to his 18 years of experience in the Upward Bound program.

The executive director explained that the Upward Bound program has the similar goal of helping high school students to be prepared for college while Act 101 essentially helps them get through college.

“Statistics showed that they (first-generation college students) graduate from college at a far lesser rate than other students,” Thomas said.

That is one of the reasons Wilkes University started the Act 101 program over 30 years ago.
Like any other program, there are requirements for students to be an Act 101 student and benefit from it.

But with the state budget cuts, those requirements have become more rigid and there are less students benefiting.

Thomas spoke about how hard it was to cut back on the services that have been provided to students for a good amount of time.

Karen Riley, the coordinator of the learning center, sat beside Thomas with the same concern when talking about the state budget cut.

The number of Act 101 students at Wilkes University has been reduced from 150 students down to 50 due to the budget cut.

Act 101 students are given the advantage of a variety of services. These include academically related services, such as the providing of a learning specialist to help students perform better in their classes and financial aid packages.
“We offer a full umbrella of services, and depending on what the (student’s) concern is, we have a person that can meet with them (to help),” Riley said.

Before the state budget cut, Act 101 used to have a book loaning service which was very helpful to students who were financially lacking.
“It is so sad to see students still coming back and asking for those services, but we don’t have the budget to provide it anymore,” Riley said.
According to Riley, due to the bad economy, the second biggest concern that students have is the financial aid problem. She helps them with the whole package, from how to organize them to how to keep the financial aid funding.

Besides helping students to achieve their goal, Act 101 advisers are willing to sit down and have one-on-one conversations with students on how to solve personal issues that might be affecting their academic performance. Riley – who was also an Act 101 student in her college years – understands very well the needs of those students.

While reminiscing about her college years, Riley recalled that like any other first year college student, she sometimes struggled to find her way during the transition between high school and college, so she got help from Act 101.

“There was time along the way when I needed guidance. I was given that (by Act 101), or the resource of information,” Riley said, empathizing with students she is working with in the program.
Like Thomas, it has been 15 years since Riley started working on this program – 12 years at Wilkes – and she has always been very passionate about her work.

“It is rewarding to see the change in students from when they first come to this school compared to how mature they become,” Riley said with a content smile on her face.

Due to the welcoming and helpful environment that the Act 101 program’s staff members provided, a student said it feels like she has a second set of parents who she can come to and talk about her problems regarding school or her personal life.

Jasmine Edwards, a Wilkes University junior majoring in business administration, was first introduced to Act 101 by Karen Riley. Riley was her first adviser at Wilkes since Edwards was undecided about her major. The Act 101 staff gives Edwards insight about things that her parents cannot because she is a first-generation college student.

“She is very hands-on,” Edwards said.

They even keep in touch during the summer time to discuss the courses that Edwards is going to take as well as her future plans, such as talking about choosing a major. Riley lays out the options and gives Edwards advice on the pros and cons to each one so she can pick and choose.

“She gives me options, and that’s what I need,” Edwards said.

In Edwards’ mind, other than being an advisor, Riley has also been a cheerleader and a second mother to her who would keep her posted on what she should be doing. The junior lost her financial aid at one time and Riley was the one who help Edwards to stand on her feet again and do well in the courses. And with the help of the Act 101 staff, Edward earned a much higher GPA and got the financial aid back.

Edwards recalled that she and her friends go to Riley for more thorough and personal advice.
“Even if I don’t see her, we still email back and forth,” Edwards said, “She wants to make sure that you are fine as a person, not a dollar sign as others might look at students like us.”

The better students are doing, the less they will have to meet with their Act 101 adviser. And Edwards sees that as a disadvantage.

“The more I process, the less I get to see Mrs. Riley,” she said, a little upset about doing better because she does not get to see her advisor as often any more.

Edwards is not the only success story that Act 101 has created. There are many other students who graduate and still keep in touch with Act 101 advisors like Karen Riley.

But due to the budget cut, the supportive program is slowly being eliminated from state funding. Thomas said this may hurt first-year and first-generation college students in the long run because there will no longer be services available.