Guiding first-generation students to success

Submitted by: Shannon Cross, USA Funds account executive

There has been much research conducted lately on first-generation college students. It’s important to understand the unique struggles faced by this group of students to determine the best way to support them as they pursue success in school and beyond.

First-generation college students, by the numbers

Let’s start out by understanding more about this group of students through some statistics:

• Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 30 percent of enrolled college students are the first in their family to pursue a higher education degree.
• That data also shows that 24 percent of students are both first-generation and low-income students.
• Overall, 25 percent of first-generation students go on to earn a bachelor degree within six years, as compared to 68 percent of non-first-generation students. However, for students that are low-income and first-generation, that number plummets to just 11 percent.
According to 2012 U.S. Department of Education data, while about 25 percent of white and Asian American students are first-generation college students, 41 percent of black students and 61 percent of Hispanics fall into that category.
• National Center for Education Statistics data shows that only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students graduate within six years of starting.

Unique barriers to overcome

Transitioning to college can be a challenge for any student, but this is especially difficult for first-generation students without an experienced relative to go to for help. These students often miss out on insider knowledge of campus resources, non-academic skills and tips that could help them in their first year in college. In some cases, they may also need to overcome a lack of support from family members who don’t see the value in a college education.

There are further considerations when it comes to first-generation students who are also from low-income households. Often working more than 20 hours a week, these students may be dealing with worrying about meeting their everyday needs in addition to the pressures of pursuing a higher education. Many low-income, first-generation students feel like it is pointless to think about the future. They also may be dealing with low self-esteem, a lack of a successful role model and a fear of authority.

How higher education professionals can help
The good news is that there are things you as higher education professionals can do to help these students succeed. Like many aspects of making students successful, it requires educating them early and checking in with them periodically. Here are some ideas:

• Become a regular presence in area high schools. Getting first-generation students thinking about college early is important.
• Hold workshops to educate parents of potential first-generation students on what their child may experience in the transition from high school and college and some tips to help them support the student through that time.
• Form a committee at your institution to work on ways of supporting first-generation students. This will get various departments involved and engaged.
• Train your academic advisors on the challenges faced by first-generation students. This will help them to better serve the unique needs of those students.
• Some institutions offer summer “bridge” programs for incoming first-generation students to provide them with a little advanced knowledge of what to expect in college. During this program, students can learn about support services available through the school, meet faculty and interact with other first-generation students.
• Encourage first-generation students to take advantage of support services by assuring them that using these services is normal and asking for help is a sign of strength.
• Work one-on-one with first-generation students during freshman orientation.