First-generation student supports helping, but colleges could do more

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The wraparound supports often needed to help first-generation students succeed in college are costly and challenging—even more so with increasing numbers of these students. At institutions like Wichita State University, where 40 percent of last fall’s 12,700 undergraduates were first gen, it’s challenging to think through personalizing and individualizing supports “when we have the volume on the other side of it,” says Bobby Gandu, assistant vice president of strategic enrollment management.

Making sure all students are aware of resources—during orientation, throughout the first semester and via faculty and staff as they connect with students—is important but just a start, adds Gandu. In the latest Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, first-generation student respondents say they generally know where to seek help on campus if support is needed; 38 percent strongly agree that they know, and 44 percent somewhat agree.

But it’s crucial administrators and faculty don’t make the mistake of thinking individual students, such as high-performing ones, are not at risk, says Gandu.

One example of a “missed” first-gen student whose story sticks with him is a young woman from Southeast Asia whose mother had been recruited to work in Kansas and made sacrifices to ensure her daughter could attend college. “She started freshman year, and we had huge and high expectations for her. She was a major scholarship recipient; she was active as a student ambassador in the office of admissions. The path was all there. We thought she was going to just bang this out of the park,” he recalls.

To keep her scholarship, the student needed good grades. “I remember having a conversation with her about the weight she felt because she had to do well,” Gandu says. The pressure was too much, and she wound up dropping out with mental health challenges.

The student did, however, have enough credits to receive an associate degree, and “I just saw recently that she took a job with Google,” says Gandu. “It took a long time. She worked through it, found her path.”

Might her journey have been easier had she gotten some counseling at Wichita State?

Many first-generation students have benefited from gathering with other first-generation students who are struggling to maintain wellness and getting some coaching on talking with family about mental health, says Carolyn H. Livingston, vice president for student life and dean of students at Carleton College, in Minnesota. Such guidance can be useful “when you go home and say you’re really struggling. It’s not just [accepting what family may say about how] you need to get out of the funk and things will automatically get better.”

Results from the latest Student Voice survey, conducted in mid-June with support from Kaplan, paint a picture of how 1,073 first-generation college students look at success and the supports they need to reach their goals. The survey found that:

  • One in four strongly agree their college helps first-generation students navigate college life, while just 4 percent strongly disagree.
  • One in four would grade their college a C, D or F on the quality of academic advising received, but three in 10 would assign an A.
  • The top support desire (from a list of 14 items) of first-generation students is for their colleges to offer first-gen-specific financial aid help (31 percent), and the second-most wish is first-gen orientation programs (20 percent).

Following are nine actions related to navigating campus life and academics that colleges and universities could make or expand to set first-generation college students up for success.

1. Offer parent-specific outreach.

Linda LeMura, president of Le Moyne College in New York, sees parent engagement as an important part of a successful first-gen launch into college. Webcasts offered weekly this summer are designed for students and their families to participate in together. The overall message: persisting through college involves support from campus and from home. Topics include the differences between high school and college, managing academics and finances, fitting in on campus, well-being, and exploring your purpose.

“Parents need to be able to encourage, cajole and offer assistance to their children,” says LeMura, a first-generation student herself. “I don’t want to sound clichéd, but it really does take a village to get students through a first semester and subsequently a first year. Our retention rate for first-generation students is almost 88 percent.”

Parents can be encouraged to ask questions about resources, bills or anything else. “After college begins and classes are rolling, I don’t hear from parents too much. They’re not usually helicopter parents,” says Sarah Scott, director of Centre College in Kentucky’s Grissom Scholars Program, which offers 10 first-generation students a full-tuition scholarship plus $5,000 in educational enrichment funds. “I’m really happy when they reach out.”

When Grissom Scholar parents initially meet Scott after move-in, she’ll speak about the flexibility of liberal arts degrees and how students really don’t need to declare a major until after sophomore year.

Some institutions make parent orientation a key part of the enrollment process for first-generation families. One example is Virginia Commonwealth University’s two-day family orientation experience, offered concurrently with student orientation at the institution, which enrolls about one-third of its class as first-gen undergrads.

In any parent communication, the idea should be to “demystify” the college experience by breaking down the jargon—as terms like “add/drop,” “fees” and even “orientation” can be confusing, says Sarah Whitley, vice president of the Center for First-Generation Student Success at NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

2. Develop pre-orientation programs.

Getting first-generation students on to campus early is considered a worthy aim—and one in five Student Voice respondents selected pre-orientation programs as a top institutional priority for supporting students like them. At Centre, this involves becoming acquainted with each other, discussing expectations and getting settled on campus before the more hectic traditional move-in day, says Scott.

Colgate University welcomes first-generation students to a special pre-orientation. One day of sessions is focused on campus services, including student affairs, wellness and career services, explains RaJhai Spencer, the assistant dean of administrative advising who leads the [email protected] program. The next day, panels are more academic based, covering areas such as study skills, time management and research opportunities. Rather than having students just sitting in one place, says Spencer, “we try to host sessions in different places so students know where these offices are.” The third day for 2022 will feature an authenticity and vulnerability workshop followed by lunch and a social event.

Respondents to the Student Voice survey are four times more likely to agree (strongly or somewhat) than to disagree that their college helps in navigating college life. And, as noted, more than eight in 10 know where to go for help on campus.

Orientations play a big role in that. Ashley German Soto, a junior at Union College in New York, arrived on campus early freshman year as part of the Bridges Program, which pairs first-gen students with first-gen faculty or staff mentors. “We met with different people who could help us in our time there. It made it feel easy to go to their offices [later] and ask for help,” says German Soto, who grew up in Boston and has noticed that first-gen friends who enrolled at other colleges seem to have had a completely different experience. “Some of them are still talking to high school teachers to try to get some mentors.”

3. Be mindful of mental health struggles.

First-generation students taking a January 2022 Student Voice survey of 2,003 students were more likely to have grown up in households impacted by depression or other mental health issues compared to continuing-generation students. Yet in many cultures mental health care is stigmatized, so students may not think counseling is even an option when they find themselves dealing with extreme stress or other mental health struggles.

As part of the process of becoming recognized as a First-Gen Forward institution, leaders at Carleton realized how much first-generation students seem to value support conversations that connect their experiences to their future, says Livingston. When coaching a student, she might say, “What does it mean if you are diagnosed with ADHD or bipolar? What impact does it have on your future?”

Targeted emails to first-gen families explain the kinds of stressors their students may be experiencing and how to suggest campus mental health supports, she adds. “Our first-generation students are breaking cycles of poverty, breaking cycles of lack of educational attainment—breaking cycles and creating legacies. There’s so much pressure around that.”

Spencer sees the most pressure on first-generation students from immigrant families whose many sacrifices got them to college. “Some of it is internalized pressure,” she says, but it’s particularly stressful for students whose parents expect financial support from their child after graduation.

This past spring at Colgate, she heard from a sophomore in that type of situation. “It was weighing very heavily on him and affecting his mental health,” she says. While discussing options, they came up with the idea of taking “a day or two off to recenter. I helped him communicate with professors, to let them know that as his dean I’ve been working with him on this.”

The pressure to do well at Union, German Soto says, “kind of keeps me moving. I’m doing this for my parents, for my family. I’m doing this for my nieces and nephews, creating the path for them so they see it’s possible to go to college.”

4. Personalize the financial aid process.

While not all first-generation students come from low-income families, money worries are another common pressure. Just one in four Student Voice respondents’ institutions are offering financial aid process help geared toward first-generation students, while 31 percent want their colleges to prioritize support in this area. “I’m not sure how much intentionality is happening in the financial aid space in terms of demystifying the process for first-generation families,” says Whitley from NASPA. On the K-12 side, high schools often hold FAFSA workshops, “but I don’t know how much work is happening to get first-gen families to those events.”

As one Student Voice respondent at a public university in California put it, “When I first applied, I was completely in the dark about how to pay, when to pay, what financial aid covered, etc. I had to do days of research and multiple phone calls just to understand the basics, and even then it wasn’t the school that taught me but my distant family.”

Besides helping break down the financial aid process and terminology, colleges can take a broader approach. The First to Fly program at Monmouth University in New Jersey, for example, has plans to bring in speakers and find advocates to help first-generation students with both the financial aid process and financial literacy skill building, explains Claude Taylor, director for academic transition and inclusion at the Center for Student Success.

5. Ensure academic advisers understand first-gen experiences.

While seven in 10 Student Voice respondents would assign a grade of A or B to their colleges on the quality of academic advising received, about one-quarter of students feel the process needs improvements (the rest are neutral).

Taylor would like to see higher ed leaders improve on advisers’ knowledge about the first-generation experience by raising awareness around student identities and complexities. “A lot of folks assume they know what it means to be first gen and operate from the most common perceptions of first gen,” he says.

At Monmouth, it would be a mistake, for example, to equate first gen and low income. “Anecdotally, a large percentage of our first-gen students are working- to middle-class students who are fairly comfortable financially,” Taylor explains. Their families may be business owners or in pretty well-paying trades. At any institution, he adds, even students from families where finances aren’t a big issue are “still experiencing some of the challenges of the hidden curriculum, understanding social capital in ways that impact their success. They still need to know more about what college is all about.”

As one of the primary advisers for First to Fly, Taylor tries to help students see scheduling holistically, not just about courses. “I can get to broader conversations about the push and pull of family with work obligations, and outside-of-school commitments with curricular commitments,” he says. With a recent uptick in the number of hours students seem to be working, advising sessions may bring related challenges to light. Last semester he learned one student athlete, always exhausted, was working the overnight shift at a local Home Depot before attending classes.

6. Raise awareness of general education course value.

Approaching course selection with a checklist encourages students to “just go through the motions in selecting electives,” says Taylor, adding that it’s better to “embrace the opportunity to learn and connect with other [academic areas]. We try to find ways to message that to our first-gen students.” While continuing-generation students may learn the value of general studies from parents or siblings, advisers could fill in the blanks for first-gen students. “You may not have guidance on how that art history class matters and how it can serve you beyond graduation,” he says.

At Carleton, where all students are exploring a liberal arts curriculum, says Livingston, advisers may find themselves needing to explain to first-gen students the meaning of what they’re doing. At Le Moyne, says LeMura, parent communication includes “that we’re going to home in on quantitative skills in addition to other skills that will allow your students to consider a range of career opportunities.”

7. Discuss major and career decisions with typical challenges in mind.

Pressure to choose a major comes from parents with and without college experiences themselves. But first-gen parents tend to hyperfocus on this decision, experts say. “I was undecided for a while before college,” says German Soto. “My mom was like, ‘You’re going to college and you don’t even know why you’re going to college.’ So I chose something just to make her happy.”

She knew in her very first biology class session that the med school path she’d selected wasn’t for her. After some exploration, German Soto—who has since admitted to her mom that she had initially not made a true decision—chose political science. She now dreams of law school and working her way up to becoming a judge.

Parents are often not familiar with different career options, says Spencer, from Colgate. That influences a lot of first-gen students to choose fields that sound impressive, like medicine, engineering or law. The students, she adds, “don’t really know what to expect or anticipate, and that it’s OK to change your major.”

In advising sessions at Monmouth, Taylor helps students “think about how what they’re studying can link up to and sync with their aspirations for jobs and careers after college,” he says.

Bentley University’s career services aims for even broader goals. “They’re trying to get students to think about designing their life and have their job be one piece of that, rather than the sole be-all goal in and of itself,” says Jane De León Griffin, the first to fill the university’s new associate provost for student success role. First-gen students in a program Griffin has been overseeing since 2019 are the first to pilot the new career program.

In addition, Bentley breaks out career planning information by affinity group. Visitors to the CareerEdge page can view content by choosing from nine channels, including one aimed at first-generation students.

Scott from Centre has found a need to encourage lofty career goals with first-gen students. “They may not realize their own potential or push themselves to experience new things or think of their possible careers a step further,” she says. In one Grissom Scholars meeting exercise, students write down what they want to do postgraduation. “I’ll say, ‘What’s bigger than that?’ We keep going to a ridiculous point.” For example, she might suggest a student looking toward education visualize themselves as the U.S. secretary of education.

8. Facilitate mentor connections.

Fewer than one in 10 Student Voice survey respondents say their college matches up first-gen students with alumni or with faculty mentors. While these didn’t emerge as among the highest priorities they have for their institutions, Whitley sees this as an area where higher ed “could be doing so much better.”

Free access to all Student Voice survey results: explore the dataA Student Voice respondent at a Chicago institution noted the need for networking help. “A lot of us don’t have the advantage of having parents who could connect us with jobs … so we’re left confused and stranded when it comes to knowing how to network on our own.”

Encouraging professors to self-identify as first generation themselves is one common effort, but it often leaves students in the driver’s seat on outreach to a professor who might have first-gen status visible on an office door or webpage. At Bentley, Griffin is considering a program where faculty can sign up to take a first-gen student to lunch monthly. “Maybe they organically stay in touch and a mentoring relationship may blossom from that,” she says.

In a September 2021 Student Voice survey of 2,003 first- and continuing-generation students, only 9 percent of those with a mentor identified that person as an alum.

Whitley points to FirstGenRN at the University of California, San Francisco, as a model to consider. Besides mentoring opportunities, the program offers monthly sessions where up to a few dozen nursing students in all levels of degree programs meet to discuss a topic related to self-care, time management, mentoring, family, finances or job skills.

Le Moyne administrators are working to better connect students of color to alumni of color—but not necessarily for career help. “They told us they want to connect with alumni to find out what is was about this place that allowed them to be successful, and how they navigated evidence of prejudice or racism,” says LeMura. “What was it that they did that allowed them to thrive?” She loves the idea of connecting with alumni to help navigate the undergraduate experience. “No one ever suggested that to me as a first-gen student.”

9. Work to scale up first-gen support programs.

In terms of making meaningful connections between and for first-gen students, “we don’t have an information problem, we have an implementation problem,” says Cecilia M. Orphan, an associate professor of higher education for the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, whose course content includes how public and organizational policies affect first-generation student experiences. She has seen many first-gen student “islands of excellence … The problem is, these programs are not scaled up to the institutional level.”

Also, she’s not sure how many institutions are assessing their programs—surveying students about what works or doesn’t—and tracking students who persist within initiatives and then tweaking programs as needed.

Scott sees more of a focus on first-gen struggles than on first-gen successes, although in her experience there are numerous inspiring stories. “I don’t see as many articles about first-generation rock stars who are really making it,” she says, adding that part of the support process is telling these students they are leaders because they’ve chosen a different path than those around them. “It’s helpful to say, ‘We really believe in you.’”

Additional coverage of the first-generation student survey covers the background and challenges of this population, plus their high expectations and multifaceted postgraduation goals. Request access to the survey results here.

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