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How To Drive First-Generation Student Success

Ari Winkleman
January 7, 2020
February 5, 2020

In the past few years, there has been a greater focus on first-generation student success. This doesn't come as a surprise given the statistics. While it's difficult to pinpoint an exact number, nearly a third of college students in the United States are first-generation.

We are glad about this shift in conversation. After all, when it comes to completion rates, students with at least one parent who attended college are 54 percent more likely to earn a degree after four years, than a first-gen! That another statistic we can no longer ignore. 

To add to this, 65% of all jobs will require some level of post-secondary education starting the year 2020. And from what we have seen in the last decade, college graduates earn 64% more than those with only high school degrees.

While many might think of these students as trailblazers, first-generation college students face various academic, financial and cultural obstacles. Often, they are associated with being low-income, from underrepresented populations or immigrant families, from rural communities where postsecondary education is scarce, or a myriad of other identities that can shape their worldview and college experience.

“There was a really steep learning curve for me, socially and academically as well, just because I had no idea what I was stepping into.”
- Andrea Reino, a student at Princeton University

Some key insights to keep in mind about this segment:

  • Consider intersectionality. First-generation students can be first-gen plus minority, first-gen plus LGBTQIA, first-gen plus low-income, and more.
  • They are slightly older than their peers and often have full-time jobs and children or dependents to support. This can at times affect their social integration on campus.
  • An estimated 21% are low-income which means they have the added challenge of managing finances along with navigating the complexities of academics.
Source: The Pell Institute
  • They don't get much help when applying to college or with financial aid from their parents. So students often have to struggle to find the right resources themselves.
  • English might be a second language for over 20% of first-gen students. Add to this, they might find many higher ed jargon terms like 'FAFSA' unfamiliar and intimidating.
  • Compared to continuing-generation peers, they are less likely to seek assistance, especially academic. This makes the need for effective institutional outreach all the more important.
  • Those who are low-income may forego purchasing necessary textbooks or may not be able to acquire the technology needed to be successful in college.
  • They tend to attend less selective institutions located closer to home despite possibly possessing the talent to be at a more rigorous institution.
  • First-gens complete fewer credit hours each academic year compared to continuing-generation peers, which affects successful outcomes.
'I had to go that extra mile to be able to find these resources for myself.'
- Hassan Mustafa, a student at the University of Colorado

To increase enrollment and graduation rates of first-gen students, these are six foundational points that practitioners and policymakers must put into action. 

  1. Improve academic preparation for college: Encourage students to take more rigorous courses in high school and give them access to more college-preparatory courses & counseling
  2. Provide additional financial aid for college: While an increase in grant aid is necessary, there needs to be more outreach to educate students & parents about the financial aid process and financial literacy about their options 
  3. Increase transfer rates to four-year colleges: Given the realities that force most first gens to start at a two-year institution, they need help creating a long-term pathway from high-school to a two-year college to a four-year college with adequate financial, academic and social counseling 
  4. Ease the transition to college: Enforce early intervention through bridge and orientation programs, as well as special first-gen programs that ease the college experience.
  5. Encourage engagement on the college campus: Increase interactions and engagement in the classroom, and also add more work-study programs to help them spend more time on campus
  6. Promote (re)entry for young and working adults: Expand financial aid eligibility for part-time students, provide more credits for experiential learning in the workplace and introduce more online learning courses 

While colleges and universities are extending their best efforts to ensure that first-generation students succeed, much of the conversation so far has been dominated by their inherent shortcomings. The narratives in studies and reports often fixate on factors that identify students as “at-risk,” “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged.” 

However, this is about to change for the better. 

Current conversations see a necessary shift from deficit mindsets to asset-based approaches. This lends more focus to helping first-gens utilize their strengths and talents for greatness rather than simply focusing on the barriers to success they may face. 54% of cohort-based programs now host celebratory or graduation events for students to mark significant milestones.

This thought also takes shape from the principles of positive psychology which focuses on identifying and recognizing the students' strong points rather than struggles. This gives students the confidence to build upon their skills, engage with the campus community and mort importantly, seek assistance. 

In helping this unique cohort, the first step is to truly understand their strengths, skills, career interests so that student affairs professionals, academic advisors, and professors can come together to guide them on the right pathway to completion. And while it is equally crucial to build a seamless, proactive support system for first-generation students, developing an 'asset-based' campus culture can make all the difference.