How Colleges Are Supporting First-Generation Students

The following is a guest post written by Sarish Kasat of Admissionado, a premier college admissions consulting company focused on helping students get into their dream schools.

Here you are, on campus for the first time. You’re a bundle of nerves, excitement, angst, and every emotion in between. Freshman orientation is about to start, and you’re stepping out of your dorm room and headed toward the main auditorium to listen to the university president speak. You have no idea what to expect, because, well, you’ve never heard a university president speak. You’ve never been in this type of an environment at all, surrounded by the types of people you see to your left and right as you join your fellow freshmen filing down the stairs. Everyone seems so… confident. So ready. You’ve finally made it to your dream school after studying late nights, long hours, and between jobs, but are you really, truly ready for what lies ahead of you over the next four years? Your parents never went to college. Not many people in your community went to college. Most of your friends from high school decided to get a job after graduation, so you never really found someone who could relate to your emotions. You wonder if you’re smart enough, if you really belong in this single file line.

Most will ask, are you ready? But instead, let me flip that question on its head. Is the college ready for you?

A quick Internet search will reveal that 6-year graduation rates among first-generation students continue to be strikingly low. But why is that? While there are a number of factors that can potentially go into this analysis, let’s dive into one, a sense of belonging. Does the university provide an atmosphere of inclusion for the first-generation student? Is that even helpful?

[RELATED: 5 Things First-Generation College Applicants Should Know]

Let’s look into a study done by David Yaeger, one of the leading experts on the psychology of education. As a graduate student at Stanford University, he was surrounded by a belief within the department as contained in this New York Times article

“To the extent that the Stanford researchers shared a unifying vision, it was the belief that students were often blocked from living up to their potential by the presence of certain fears and anxieties and doubts about their ability. These feelings were especially virulent at moments of educational transition — like the freshman year of high school or the freshman year of college. And they seemed to be particularly debilitating among members of groups that felt themselves to be under some special threat or scrutiny...”

The transitional negativity manifested in two different forms:

  1. Do I belong here, and will I ever belong here?

  2. Am I smart enough to make it through?

Dr. Yaeger eventually joined the University of Texas at Austin, where he was tasked with attacking this very problem with first-generation students, and this is where the study began. For the incoming freshman class, he had the university incorporate an interactive presentation on the “U.T. Mindset.” Each student got one out of four types of this presentation:

  1. The Belonging Presentation: Messages from former and current students who at first felt alone at the university, but later began to feel at home when they realized everyone felt the same way.

  2. The Mindset Presentation: Messages from students who at first felt they weren’t smart enough, but they learned that as they studied and worked hard, they felt and became smarter.

  3. The Hybrid Presentation: A mixture of both.

  4. The Control Group: A fairly bland set of messages reflecting on U.T.’s culture.

The results?

Although 4% may not seem like a huge number, the presentation actually cut the achievement gap in half. And a 4% increase over the thousands of freshmen enrolling at U.T. is not a small number—the impact was real. And that impact was not an anomaly. The data persisted over three years. It affirmed that allocating resources to help disadvantaged students, including first-generation students, operate in an environment of inclusion and support is important. And universities are beginning to realize this… and take action. Action to get their community ready to handle the unique needs of first-generation students.

Brown University

Over the summer, Brown University is planning on opening a dedicated first-gen center. As co-director of Campus Life, Ricky Gresh put it, “Growing research shows that in order for first-generation students to succeed, we must affirm their identities and experiences and create a sense of belonging for them on campus. To do that requires Brown to recognize that our traditional strategies for supporting students weren’t designed with these students in mind. We have to go beyond offering resources and expecting students to have the tools to navigate them on their own, to building trust and relationships with students and meeting them in their spaces.”

Major programs at the Center will include outreach to incoming students, weekly student group meetings, a peer mentoring program, resource events with university services (such as financial aid, counseling, and career advising), student and alumni networking, and community-building events. The Center will also be a home for ongoing collaborations with low-income student support networks and recent efforts to begin connecting with graduate students who were the first in their families to go to college and now to pursue advanced degrees.

The University of Michigan

About 13% of the enrolled students (both undergraduate and graduate) at the University of Michigan are first-generation students. The school has taken to heart the idea of the university being ready for the student. Barry Checkoway, professor of social work and urban planning says, "First-generation students are a distinct group with distinct educational needs. There is curricular content and there are pedagogies that relate well to first-generation students. So, in addition to providing supportive programs for first-generation students, there is need also to provide professional development for faculty."

A university website for first-generation students went live on March 9th, and serves as a gateway to resources for those in need. It contains everything from academic resources, to financial aid opportunities, to networking (the ability to connect with other first-generation students). Allowing a first-generation student to read an article or watch a video created by another first-generation student can be truly inspiring. And of course, it helps with that feeling of belonging that has been proven to aid in retention.

The University of Kentucky

The University of Kentucky has created the Office of First-Generation Initiatives to support first-generation (or as they call it, 1G) students with the goal of “increasing first-generation student retention and graduation levels to match those of continuing generation students at the University of Kentucky.”

The resources the office provides mirror the type of support we are seeing becoming a focal point at universities across the nation—academic, personal networking, and financial aid among others.

Does catering to the needs of the first-generation student only help a single section of the campus community? Absolutely not. The presence of the unique perspective of first-generation students enriches the campus as a whole. J. Greg Merritt, an adviser to first-gen students who serves as senior associate director of University Housing and director of the Coleman-Munger Fellows Program at the University of Michigan summed it up nicely. "(First-generation students) can teach their fellow students about tenacity and overcoming perceived obstacles. They also have the ability to teach others on the campus what it means to change the future trajectory of their family and oftentimes entire communities.”

While there are a number of resources available for first-generation students who are getting college-ready, you may find that there are even more when you get to campus.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.