Thankfully, I only have classes Tuesday and Thursday this semester; that means I can work three full days a week.
I need help with my financial aid paperwork. All these numbers and boxes are daunting.
I’d love to attend more evening events on campus, but I have an hour commute home, so I usually leave after my last class.
I’m doing this for my family; I want my little brother to see anything is possible.
Being the first in the family to attend college can come with challenges. But with it also comes an undeniable hunger to learn and succeed.
About 30% of today’s college students consider themselves first-generation — someone whose parents or guardians do not hold a bachelor’s degree.
While the term “first-generation student” isn’t new to higher education, it is a segment of the college population that’s become a greater focus on many campuses. According to the Educational Advisory Board (EAB), about 25% of first-generation college students leave school after their first year. And only 11% of low-income first-gens attain a degree within six years of completing high school.
First Generation. First-Hand Experience.
In the past 20 years, more than 36 million people who started college left before earning a degree. That’s why we’re here. ReUp Education works with our partners to help these former students achieve a dream they put on hold, and first-gens are among the most motivated we encounter. Our diverse coaching team takes enormous pride in helping others return to school. And because many of them were the first in their families to earn a degree themselves, our Success Coaches understand the motivations and challenges of first-generation students first-hand.
In this post, we’ll talk about this disparity in completion between first-generation students and their peers, and discuss how colleges and universities can serve this segment in a more intentional way.
Inspiration & Obstacles: Understanding First-Generation College Students
Fully understanding the needs, circumstances, and assets of first-generation college students is crucial to finding ways to support them more effectively. This understanding starts with awareness. In the spring 2018 issue of Bentley University’s alumni magazine, Dean of Students J. Andrew Shepardson said institutions need to “challenge the traditional view that all students have had family members who know the ropes.”
This means we need to be aware that many students apply to schools or arrive on campus without the added benefit of a parental figure who can provide first-hand knowledge and direction. We also know many first-gens are likely to experience other economic and societal disadvantages that leave them less prepared for or less interested in post-secondary education. And we’re still learning more.
Increased interest in research about first-generation college students has resulted in better data and more detailed anecdotal evidence about these students’ motivations, outcomes, hopes, and fears. For instance, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported 69 percent of first-generation students attend college to help their family, whereas 43 percent of continuing-generation students count that as one of their motivators. From this, we can glean that, for some first-gens, earning a degree may feel like more of a family duty, whereas their peers may attend college because it’s what’s expected after high school.
Many first-gens also struggle with “breakaway guilt,” an emotion that commonly develops when leaving younger siblings behind, especially if the student had a caretaker role. These family and financial obligations can certainly add pressure during a major life adjustment, but they may also contribute, positively, to their commitment to school.
Learning what challenges first-generation students face is one thing, but perhaps it’s more important to recognize the characteristics that will serve as valuable assets. Campus Labs released a report in 2018 measuring the prevalence of six non-cognitive skills that impact student success:
- Educational commitment
- Social comfort
- Campus engagement
- Academic engagement
- Academic self-efficacy
When researchers compared data between first and continuing-generation students, they found the former scored higher in three areas: educational commitment, campus engagement, and academic engagement. Inside Higher Ed reported on this study in June 2018. In the article, Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at Education Trust, spoke to the higher engagement rate.
“First-generation students feel it is such a privilege to go to college,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s why they’re more engaged. They want to chart and clear a path for those coming behind them.”
The road to and through college for first-generation students may get bumpy at times. But with new research in hand, coupled with existing expertise and offerings, post-secondary institutions can make that ride a lot smoother.
Academics & Applications: Preparing for College
According to EAB, 24% of students at four-year institutions identify as first-generation. To explore why this group attends college at a lower rate than their peers, we can look back to their high school experience. The 2018 NCES Stats in Brief Report indicates there’s an opportunity gap between first-gen and non-first-gen students.
For example, only 16% of high school students whose parents did not earn a degree focused on an academic curriculum, compared to the 37% of continuing-generation students that did. This study also shared that fewer first-generation students took AP courses and advanced math classes in high school, at 18% compared to 44% of their peers. Secondary education undoubtedly has plenty of opportunities to improve college-readiness for students of any background.
If high school students aren’t getting access to some of the same opportunities, they’re at least getting encouraged by teachers and guidance counselors, right? Not exactly. The juxtaposition of increasing populations and staff shortages mean high school students today aren’t always getting the direction and support they need.
While college admissions representatives aren’t necessarily aware of which prospective students may need more reassurance that college can be a reality, there are ways they can help during high school visits and college fairs. For example, they can spend more time on the issues that are most important to first-generation students and their parents. And a lot of this is educating them about the application and financial aid process; for instance, addressing the sticker shock of college. It’s a common misconception that private universities are more costly than public universities to attend, based on actual price paid. So educating parents and students about need-based aid options earlier and more often is key; otherwise, students may not even consider applying to a school that could actually be a great fit. Understanding the opportunity for scholarships and other need-based options sooner can also help solidify a student’s path in high school.
Language can also be an issue. Academia is known for its jargon, words like “bursar,” “matriculation,” “prerequisite,” and “registrar.” Parents who haven’t been through the college experience can find it challenging to understand all this terminology, and therefore leave questions unanswered. This can be especially true for parents and guardians whose first language is not English. Offering an on-site website translation service is one way to address this; for example, Georgia Tech’s Office of Student Integrity implemented Google and Bing’s translator into its site. Other schools, such as Middle Georgia State University have created online “jargon glossaries.”
After the college search, application, and financial aid process, comes the transition to college life. More and more schools are changing processes and developing programs to be more intentional in helping first gens with the adjustment.
Arriving & Adjusting: First-Generation Students Face Challenges On Campus
First-generation students add diversity to a campus in many ways, socio-economic class for one. But there’s also diversity among first-gen students themselves, and with that can come misconceptions. For instance, not all are from low-income households; parents could be high wage-earners because they own a business or work in a field that didn’t require a degree. These first-gens may have fewer financial worries than others, but their parents still may not be equipped to help with schoolwork, decisions about classes, and where to find assistance on campus.
Socio-economic class aside, aspirational capital — or, someone’s innate ability to maintain dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived barriers — can play a role in completing their degree. One recent study showed that first-generation students with higher aspirational capital were 28.5% more likely to enroll in college. More telling of ambition’s role is that these students were also 25.6% more likely to persist through the fourth semester, which is, according to the study, a time when first-generation college students are found to most likely drop out of college.
Earlier, we shared that about 25% of first-generation college students leave school after their first year. Reasons for not returning or leaving early go beyond academics: affordability, family obligations, illness or injury, or the need to work full-time. And then there are social pressures; it’s common for nearly all college students to, at some point, worry about making friends and fitting in. It is first-generation students, however, that more often doubt their sense of belonging or question if they deserve to be in college. They also may feel left out when social activities require funds they might not have, or when parents aren’t able to travel to school for family events.
This feeling of isolation and doubt can lead to poor performance, depression, or other issues that may prompt a student to leave college. This is why addressing those common barriers early is so critical.
Collaborating & Connecting: Supporting First-Generation Students
Not all first-generation students will identify as such during the recruiting process, so this poses a challenge for providing proactive support early on. However, many schools are starting to create cross-campus collaborations to serve first-gen students better.
Orientation programming is a great place to start. Shepardson, from Bentley, said a new “first-generation task force” staffed an information table for first-gens at orientation. He explained that students who signed up for information were soon invited to a first-generation social event. Connecting them with similar students is important, but so is connecting them to the broader campus. This is where better promotion — or even organization — of on-campus services and programs, such as tutoring, advising, counseling, and peer mentoring, can come in. (And that’s something all students benefit from.) Simplifying information and producing documents in multiple languages is also a step toward better communication with parents and families.
This idea of increased awareness of academic, financial, social, and psychological needs common among this population can encourage staff and faculty members to think differently about how they communicate with and what they expect from first-generation students. But it’s equally important to understand why some students might not ask for help, or even make their first-gen status known.
Many first-generation students, by nature, have become self-sufficient, generally a positive trait for acclimating to college. But this independent nature may also mean being seen as a failure if they ask for help. ReUp Success Coach Stephanie Vore says this hesitation to seek help often comes up in conversations with students.
In these cases, she says, “We focus on reframing the thought process that asking for help doesn’t signal failure, but shows strength.”
Educational psychologist Linda Banks-Santilli wrote in a 2015 Quartz article that some students fear being identified as first-generation because once it’s out, they risk being underestimated or pitied. So when students do come forward, it’s important not to perpetuate any stigma.
First-Generation. Second Chance.
With an increased understanding of the motivations and struggles of first-generation college students, institutions of higher learning have a real opportunity to better prepare this population for personal and professional success. But what about that 30% who’ve already left?
ReUp works with incredibly bright and motivated people every day: stopout students who experienced an obstacle at some point in their educational journey. Through our data-driven platform, our Success Coaches help returning students navigate the process of degree completion. Part of this one-on-one coaching involves pointing students to academic and financial resources as well as providing information that might not have been explained to students the first time around. Most importantly, our Success Coaches work with students to build a plan around their current life and work obligations — and help them stay on track through graduation.
To learn more about how we support stopout students, visit our Success Coaching page.