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Supporting first-gen college students

24 ideas for guiding students through the social, academic, financial, and administrative challenges of college
University Business, March 2015
Successful firsts: MIT’s First Generation Program website includes personal snapshots from first-gen students, alumni and faculty.
Successful firsts: MIT’s First Generation Program website includes personal snapshots from first-gen students, alumni and faculty.

Thirty percent of higher ed students today are the first in their family to attend college, while 24 percent—4.5 million—are both first-generation and low-income.

That means a significant portion of students is at risk of dropping out, as National Center for Education Statistics data shows that only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students graduated within six years of starting. And less than one-quarter of first-generation students overall earn their way to a bachelor’s degree, compared to 68 percent of their non-first-gen peers.

Beyond issues of retention and completion, many first-generation students face day-to-day challenges as they navigate social, academic, financial and administrative challenges.

“Anyone thinking about helping these students has to think beyond a program or an initiative to a set of initiatives that, together, form a social safety net that will help these students make it to, through, and after college,” says Karen Gross, president of Southern Vermont College. “Any effort has to be systemic and systematic.”

Following are 24 ways colleges can support first-generation students in every aspect and stage of student life.

1. Establish a regular presence in high schools.

When admissions counselors Rhonda Tysk and Travis Hinkle at West Liberty University in West Virginia surveyed high school guidance counselors, respondents emphasized the importance of the high school visit in reaching prospective students.

According to the survey, these visits have an even greater impact on first-generation college students, who benefit from the personal experience of being able to ask questions face-to-face.

Offering “free stuff”—such as pens, pennants, T-shirts and mugs—attracts students’ attention and can be used as prizes during application season. Colleges also should do an “instant admission” day, where students can apply with a fee waiver and be admitted on the spot, Tysk and Hinkle say.

2. Enlist current first-gen students and graduates in creating targeted recruiting messages.

Too often, recruitment messages aren’t tailored for first-generation students, says Matt Rubinoff, executive director of the “I’m First” program of the Center for Student Opportunity.

He suggests having the established students create and share videos, write blogs and share their experiences with prospect groups, referring to these tactics as leveraging the “power of peer influence.”

3. Create a landing page for first-generation students.

Rubinoff believes all college websites should have a landing page that helps prospective students from this group answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” He points to the pages created by University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Northern Arizona University as models.

4. Offer free fly-in campus visits.

In an effort to attract first-generation and other underserved students from across the U.S., colleges are increasingly offering a limited amount of free flights to their schools. Many—such as the “Multicultural Visit” to University of Rochester in New York and “Journey to Bucknell” to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania—are highly competitive based on GPA and/or test scores.

5. Eliminate information barriers.

For many first-gen students, the application and financial aid processes are a major obstacle. Free or low-cost ways to keep students on track include sending text-message alerts to parents and students about registration deadlines and financial aid information.

Heart of Florida United Way and the YMCA of Central Florida are working with 17 schools in the state (including Florida State and the University of Central Florida) to do just that, with students signing up to receive messages from the institutions.

Also, some college admissions officers offer two free hours of coaching to a total of 10,000 low-income, first-generation students, through a partnership between the Center for Student Opportunity’s “I’m First” program and Chegg, an online textbook provider and learning platform.

6. Offer a summer “bridge” program.

To aid in the transition between high school and college, many institutions run bridge programs for first-generation students. These events last anywhere from a day to two weeks or more, and are intended to give students a preview of the college experience while meeting faculty and first-generation peers.

St. Mary’s College of California, for example, offers a two-week residency, costing $300, for first-generation students who apply to its High Potential program.

7. Make that bridge a “boot camp” experience.

Last summer, New Jersey Institute of Technology ran an intensive six-week program for high school seniors from low-income families and urban schools. Those who passed all the courses were eligible to enter NJIT in the fall.

Executive Director Laurence Howell used his military training to motivate students to work hard. He also focused on unit-building—the notion of being part of a special group, he says. “It’s tearing down preconceived ideas about college and replacing them with a strong sense of the unknown.”

The dropout rate through the fall semester among the 120 boot camp graduates is about 2 percent.

8. Involve high schools in the admissions process.

Through a partnership with area high schools and community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, Southern Vermont College admits a select group of at-risk students through an inverted admissions process that puts decision-making into the hands of those who know the prospective students.

These “sending” institutions use an admissions rubric developed by the college. But they are able to make judgments based on what Gross calls “certain traits you can’t quantify—a hunger, a fire in their belly” that might indicate students’ potential for success even if they have a GPA below 2.5 or an 800-composite SAT score.

9. Identify and reach out to eager prospects.

Exam provider ACT now gives colleges free access to information about underserved high school seniors who opt in to be contacted by the institutions. According to ACT, nearly 200 higher ed institutions have taken advantage of this program since it launched in December 2014.

10. Offer aid to those who need it most.

At Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, merit aid is virtually a thing of the past, as the school now dedicates most of its assistance to lower-income students. The college meets 100 percent of each student’s demonstrated need through financial assistance, loans and work study.

As UB reported last year, the number of students receiving need-based aid at Franklin & Marshall rose from 37 percent in 2008 to 56 percent in 2014, while the need-based budget increased from $5.8 million in 2008 to $13 million in that same time frame.

11. Create a first-gen living-learning community.

The University of Cincinnati, the University of Kentucky and Southern Connecticut State University are a few schools that have established communities dedicated to these students. The living spaces and programming are intended to help foster supportive relationships among students and allow for ongoing guidance from faculty.

12. Establish and support first-gen student organizations.

A campus club not only offers the obvious social benefits of networking and community, but can also help with recruiting and retention.

Many of these groups host social events for current and former first-generation college students, as well as faculty who were first-generation. Administrators can call on these students to mentor prospects and create marketing videos about their experiences.

Walter Menendez, a student advisory board member of MIT’s First Generation Program, says the university’s club has brought visibility to first-gen students on campus and helps combat stereotypes.

The program was formerly student-run, but (indicating a growing level of institutional support for the group) it is now housed within the university’s undergraduate advising office and has a dedicated staff member who helps coordinate initiatives.

13. Enlist peer and faculty mentors.

Mentorships, while sometimes built in to student clubs, are often established through separate, formal initiatives. At St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, where 45 percent of students are first-generation, students in the Faculty Academic Mentor program are placed into a group with four others, plus peer and faculty mentors.

14. Create, and reward, leadership opportunities.

Offering these students an active role in campus activities can help build community, as well as confidence and professional experience. The University of Texas at Austin couples financial aid with leadership responsibility by awarding 500 students $5,000 annually, paid in monthly installments, in exchange for participation in service learning and other campus programs.

15. Make study abroad accessible.

At the College of New Rochelle in New York—where nearly 67 percent of students are first-generation—the number of students studying abroad grew from about five in previous years to 11 in 2013-14.

Study abroad program director Silvana Bajana says financial constraints, family obligations and a lack of awareness often keep these students from studying overseas. Her office educates students about the value of, and options for, studying abroad.

The school offers several scholarships, including one that covers 50 percent of expenses and has been offered to 99 percent of students who apply for it. Scholarship students are required to blog about their experiences and share photos online.

Meanwhile, at Kent State University in Ohio, six first-generation, low-income students were sent to study abroad in Florence, Italy, last summer, prior to their freshman year. Dana Lawless-Andric, executive director for diversity and inclusion, says these students have not only gained a more global perspective but also averaged a 3.3 cumulative GPA through their first semester in college, with five of the six averaging 3.51.

16. Ensure appropriate first-year placement.

First-generation students are often mistakenly placed in remedial courses that can extend their college experience by two to three semesters or more, says Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach City College in California. “We lose a lot of students when they can’t progress toward a degree in a reasonable amount of time.”

Since 2012, the Promise Pathways initiative has placed students from surrounding school districts into English and math courses based on high school performance, rather than standardized tests.

The program is based on research that shows high school GPA to be a much greater predictor of student success than are placement tests—which, Oakley says, many first-generation students don’t prepare for.

As a result of this shift, testing into placement in transfer-level math at the college has increased from less than 10 percent to more than 30 percent. For English, those figures rose from under 15 percent to almost 60 percent. And, these students have succeeded in these courses at a rate on par with those who took multiple semesters of developmental instruction, he adds.

17. Offer alternatives to remediation.

The trend among many schools is to offer simultaneous remediation instead of placement in developmental courses that offer little to no credit.

Southern Vermont College, however, is looking to “stretch” required courses that serve as a gateway to certain professions across two semesters in order to give students more time to master difficult material. Officials have tested this approach with anatomy and physiology and now plan to consider trying this with statistics, microbiology and physics.

18. Use data consistently to monitor the need for interventions.

Georgia State University President Mark Becker begins every staff meeting with a conversation about data to reinforce its potential for keeping at-risk students on target. 

The institution’s GPS Advising system, using data updated nightly, tracks more than 700 alert factors, automatically contacting students and advisors when anything is amiss. In the first year of use, the university saw a 14-point rise in students’ likelihood for graduating on time.

Arizona State, using a similar, analytics-driven e-advisor, helped increase the university’s retention rate by 10 percent in that same time. These tools can be particularly useful for first-gen students who may be less likely to seek help on their own.

19. Create “neighborhoods” on campus.

With 50,000 students spread across its 5,200-acre grounds, Michigan State University has found a way to make its campus feel less sprawling. The school has situated administrative services such as advising, health services and math tutoring centers in each housing area to make these functions more accessible and personalized.

While the benefit is clearly to all, these neighborhoods especially aid first-gen students who may be less likely to seek campus resources.

20. Offer microgrants to prevent dropout.

To support low-income students—many of whom are first in their families to attend college—Georgia State University offers microgrants to those who are on track to graduate, but are having significant trouble paying for school. In 2012-13, the university re-enrolled 2,600 students through this initiative, distributing $2 million that went directly toward tuition and fees.

21. Reach students without marginalizing them.

At The University of North Carolina at Asheville, supporting first-generation students without making them feel singled out is a primary concern, says Stephanie Franklin, director of transition and parent programs.

“Many of our students are leery of being labeled—and many interpret our emphasis on a status as a means of marginalization,” Franklin says.

The school is in the process of establishing a mentoring program that pairs first-gen students with faculty members who were first-generation. So far, administrators have primarily reached these individuals via programs geared toward broader segments. The school’s “transition student” programs, for example, are geared toward anyone needing extra support making the shift from high school to college.

22. Fundraise for scholarships.

At Linfield College in Oregon, where the number of first-generation students has grown by nearly 50 percent since 2009-10, officials are in the quiet phase of a fundraising campaign to endow scholarships for first-gen students. vPresident Tom Hellie says that while it’s too early to measure results, potential donors are enthusiastic about this new focus.

23. Learn from—and work with—other institutions.

Eleven of the country’s largest public research universities—including Arizona State, Georgia State and Purdue universities—have formed the University Innovation Alliance to share ideas and data in an effort to graduate more students, particularly low-income and first-generation students.

Presidents from each university met more than five times in 2014, held monthly phone conferences and traded data, allowing each school to adopt and scale each other’s initiatives. The group has committed to graduating a combined 68,000 additional students in the next 10 years—at least half of whom will be low-income.

24. Focus on the entire student lifecycle.

Basing the success of first-generation students on year-to-year retention numbers is not enough, says Gross of Southern Vermont College. “What you really need to look at is retention over four years, and how they do post-graduation.”

Her college’s Mountaineer Scholars program is designed with this in mind. It admits a cohort of about 25 at-risk students and offers support and oversight through graduation and beyond. The program works with area high schools and organizations not only to identify high-potential students but also to secure funding and provide mentorship, advising and career guidance.

The first cohort graduates this May with an 82 percent retention rate over four years. Graduates are expected to return to campus to mentor current students. It’s an opportunity for these alumni to “pay it forward.”

Ioanna Opidee is a Milford, Conn.-based writer and educator.

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