How colleges can rise to a ‘higher level’ to help first-generation students

Institutions should be asking numerous questions and doing widespread auditing to ensure success.
By: | November 24, 2021
Adobe Stock

A key part of any college’s enrollment and retention strategy is both attracting first-generation students and seeing them through to completion. Around 60% of prospective students entering higher education would be the first from their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. The percentage is even higher for those going to Minority Serving Institutions and Tribal Colleges. Yet, much stands in the way of them getting there.

Sarah Whitley, Assistant Vice President at the Center for First-Generation Student Success, which is a part of NASPA and the Suder Foundation, highlights a few of those barriers:

  • They need more financial aid, and Pell Grants are not large enough to support them
  • They often come from lower-income households, and many are full-time workers and caregivers
  • They have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, including loss of jobs, housing and academic resources
  • Veterans, many of whom are first-gen students, may need assistance getting acclimated to postsecondary education environments

First-gen students often face another major obstacle: combing through jargon-filled messaging from institutions without the “cultural capital” to understand what it takes to enroll and be successful.

“Our institutions are making college-going so hard,” Whitley says. “We use terms like FAFSA and bursar and provost. And we talk about things like add-drop dates. A colleague from a university told me that our institutions were not created with first-generation students in mind.”

But there are many ways that institutions can help shatter those barriers and be more welcoming to first-gen students. The first, Whitley says, is simply to see them as a benefit, not a detriment. “We’ve heard comments that first-generation students and the challenges that they bring are shortcomings in their character, rather than being institutional challenges that they’re trying to overcome,” she says. “We’ve even heard some people refer to first-gen students as being too much of a risk to their institution. A lot of our work is shifting the narrative from deficit-based to asset-based approaches for supporting them. First-gen students bring a variety of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives that enrich our classrooms and our campus communities. Celebrating those identities can be a real strength.”

Whitley says meeting their needs goes beyond simple solutions.

“When people think about supporting first-gen students, they immediately think about programmatic opportunities: we can put together a cohort-based living-learning program, or we can do mentoring,” she says. “Mentoring is the No. 1 thing that students say they want, and that’s great. But what I encourage institutions to do is to come up to a much higher level and think about their institutional infrastructure. Audit your institution and policies, procedures, jargon and data. Anyone can do it, no matter where you sit positionally at the institution.”

That means college and university leaders should be asking a number of questions:

  • Are the practices we’re using in each office equitable for students?
  • Are they opening up opportunities for first-gen students?
  • Am I doing anything that could create them to not want to not engage?
  • Are the policies or procedures in your office because they’re easier for you, or because they’re actually a benefit to allow students to access your needs, thinking about just your office hours—Does 8 am to 5 pm work for everyone these days?

Whitley says auditing should be considered across the range of divisions and institution-wide, as well as in strategic plans. Colleges also should look at how they define first-generation students and whether they are proper and appropriately align with institutional missions.

Wichita State University, which has done an outstanding job meeting the needs of first-generation students, made one simple change that exponentially boosted the number of students it reached. The university replaced wording on its website and in communications to say “Student Hours” instead of “Office Hours.” Another had a long-standing policy in place to purchase a uniform for entry to orientation. Ending that process quickly increased numbers.

“Those little things can really add up to important changes within an institution that can create greater access,” Whitley says. “A lot of times at big institutions, people say, we can’t make change because that’s the way it’s always been. No, you can. You just have to find the right leadership to support it.”

NASPA’s First Gen Center, founded in 2017, provides a tremendous amount of research and resources to colleges and universities through its many conferences. It also has the First-Gen Forward initiative, comprised of 215 institutions committed to serving students through regional events and sharing resources. It helps lead the National First Generation College Celebration, which took place two weeks ago, and has robust First Scholars Programs, providing tools and guidance for institutions looking to improve outcomes.

“We’re open to working with any institution—large, small, public, private, HBCUs, MSI tribal colleges,” Whitley says. “We are focusing on once those students get to college, how do we create environments at institutions where they can actually be successful? It’s institutions that are NASPA members. We are really looking to grow our engagement with community and technical colleges. They’re understaffed, they’re under-resourced. Anything we can do to be a support in that community.”