NBC’s Peter Alexander reports:

For an 18-year-old fresh out of high school, college holds the dual challenges of schoolwork and living away from home. For students who are the first in their families to attend college, college becomes uncharted territory. Such first-generation college students make up nearly 30 percent of all college freshmen nationwide, and are among the students most likely to drop out before graduation.

Low-income students are particularly hard-hit – they are four times more likely to drop out than their classmates, largely due to concerns about expenses and family. Overall, 89 percent of low-income, first-generation students fail to successfully obtain a college degree after admission.

Judy Mause of the University of Cincinnati considers these staggering statistics as her own personal Everest. Serving as part-advisor, part-”house mom”, she is the coordinator of the University’s Gen-1 House, a unique program academic and social support targeting low-income, first-generation students. In a home-like, off-campus dormitory, 24 students live, work, and socialize together, and receive tutoring and support from Mause and each other in an attempt to buck the trend.

Mause considers herself a Sherpa to the students – guiding their progress around obstacles and supporting their ambition to excel beyond expectations. Most of her students have already overcome difficult situations to excel in high school. She says, “They have had to grow up faster than their years. They have had financial struggles.”

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One-on-one attention and mutual support goes a long way towards keeping these kids on the right track. Tracy Steagall and Jashala Hargrove, both first-year residents of Gen-1 House, acknowledge that having people around who care and understand where you’re coming from makes all the difference.

Tracy remembers first arriving at school. “It was a lil’ scary. You’re thinking, ‘I’m one out of 38,000.’”

Family life proved the greater threat to Jashala’s success, as she is one of 12 children of a drug addict. “It felt a little more comfortable knowing that other people in the house were going through what I was going through. And that they were still here.”

Mause admires the courage that the students have shown in simply choosing to be a part of the Gen-1 program, and in observing the strict house rules, including curfews and “quiet hours”, and a ban on drugs and alcohol. Their tireless perseverance is matched only by her pride in their accomplishments.

“They finished well in high school. And maybe that’s where most people think that their journey will end. But not these kids.”