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This article was originally published in the October 24. 2013 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education. 

http://chronicle.com/article/New-Resources-Encourage/142597/ (subscription required)

October 24, 2013

New Resources Encourage First-Generation Students

By Justin Doubleday

As many colleges and advocacy groups focus on socioeconomic diversity and retention, meeting the needs of students who are the first in their families to pursue a degree has become a priority. To recruit students to a campus and to support them to graduation, some promising approaches are emerging.

Preparing first-generation students for the rigors of higher education, providing them with financial aid, and connecting them with the campus community are the biggest challenges institutions face, says a report released on Thursday by the Council of Independent Colleges.

With more than $5-million from the Walmart Foundation, the group gave grants to 50 of its member colleges, in two cycles over the past five years, to enhance services for first-generation students. Some offered scholarships, for example, or career preparation.

Based on the experiences of its grantees, the private-college group has compiled 10 best practices for promoting first-generation students’ academic success (see list). Accompanying the report— “Making Sure They Make It!”—is a Web site that profiles campus programs and categorizes them by strategy for other institutions considering similar efforts, as well as for policy makers and families.

“We hope we can get the message out to everyone,” said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. Private institutions are best equipped to support first-generation students, he said, with greater financial resources and more-extensive support services than many public institutions have. To counter the perception that expensive private colleges cater only to affluent students, the group cites the statistic that 70 percent of first-generation students at private four-year institutions earn their degrees within six years, while at public four-year colleges, only 57 percent do.

Some programs supported by the Walmart grants improved students’ academic performance, the CIC reported. For instance, at Thomas College, in Maine, first-generation students who participated in academic coaching and a course in quantitative literacy had a first-year retention rate of 72 percent, compared with 64 percent for all students. And at Heritage University, on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington State, students in a mentoring program had a mean grade-point average of 3.3, compared with 2.9 for nonparticipants.

Colleges can improve student success with a variety of measures, according to the report, such as summer bridge programs, peer mentors, special scholarships for first-generation students, and close monitoring of their academic progress.

Limited Expectations

Students whose parents have no postsecondary education make up a quarter of the undergraduate population at four-year colleges, according to a 2010 study by the National Center for Education Statistics. Another 25 percent have parents with some postsecondary education but no bachelor’s degree.

First-generation students often come from communities where there is a general lack of knowledge surrounding the college-application process, said John N. Gardner, president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education.

In such communities, students are not typically expected to attend college, which creates the impression that they don’t belong there, Mr. Gardner said. “We have a tyranny of limited expectations.”

And the fear of student-loan debt is high among first-generation students, he said. Not knowing how to apply for scholarships or financial aid can exacerbate that fear.

“They really don’t know how to navigate the system,” Mr. Gardner said. “They don’t know the questions to ask.”

Many first-generation students are from low-income families, said Joe Fisher, chief executive and founder of First Generation College Bound Inc. The College Board noted in a recent report that less than 60 percent of high-school graduates from families making less than $34,000 a year enroll in college. By comparison, 82 percent of high-school graduates from families making more than $90,000 a year go on to a postsecondary institution.

For first-generation students from lower-income families, “the challenges are always going to be there,” Mr. Fisher said. “What’s not always there are the support services or systems to help them overcome those barriers so that our population can have equal access to higher education.”

‘Storytelling Campaign’

A new online project is collecting video testimonials to encourage first-generation students. The Center for Student Opportunity started the project, called “I’m First,” this month, modeled after the “It Gets Better” campaign to support young people in the LGBT community.

On the crowdsourced “I’m First” site, people who were the first in their families to attend college offer anecdotes and advice on how they managed to be successful students.

College-search sites and guidebooks often aren’t enough for first-generation students, said Matt Rubinoff, executive director of the center. He hopes the videos will inspire students who question whether college is for them.

“At the end of the day, students are responding most to their peers,” Mr. Rubinoff said. “It’s a storytelling campaign.”

Kaitlin Marsh remembers feeling like the “only one on the planet who doesn’t know what’s going on,” she said. In her hometown of Belvidere, N.J., population 2,700, many of her high-school classmates went straight into the work force or the military. Her guidance counselor, she said, was in the first year on the job and had as many questions about college as she did.

“I had a lot of uncertainty going in of what college even was and what they needed from me,” Ms. Marsh said.

Now a senior at Bucknell University, she is double-majoring in classics and history. She posted on “I’m First,” she said, because a resource like that would have helped her make the transition into college three years ago.

So far, “I’m First” has collected about two dozen videos. One is from the secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Michelle Obama may post another, said Mr. Rubinoff, who hopes that, as with “It Gets Better,” celebrities might lend their voices.

The “I’m First” site also features a database of the Center for Student Opportunity’s 168 partner colleges. Users can search using different criteria, such as location, financial aid, most popular major, and summer bridge programs.

Undermatching, or enrolling in less-selective colleges than they are qualified to attend, is a problem for first-generation students, Mr. Rubinoff said. “Our soapbox is that the opportunity for college does exist for first-gen college students,” he said, at institutions that would strongly support them.

Correction (10/24/2013, 10:20 a.m.): The original version of this article misidentified Bucknell University as Bucknell College. The article has been updated to reflect the correction.