Schools try a range of strategies to help first-generation students graduate

Students without college-educated parents may benefit from extra counseling

Colleges and universities are implementing new strategies to help first-generation students get on even footing with their peers and graduate from college, Susan Dynarski writes for the New York Times' "The Upshot" blog.

Why first-generation students are falling behind


Thirty percent of first-generation freshmen drop out of school within three years, which is three times the dropout rate of students whose parents graduated from college.

While many factors can be attributed to first-generation students' lower graduation rates, they tend to:

  • Attend colleges with fewer instructional resources;
  • Have less money; and
  •  Be less academically prepared. 

First-generation students also miss out on another extremely important factor in their success: parental input. Parents who have graduated from college know what the experience is like and can help their children navigate the path to graduation. College-educated parents also tend to engage in brief, frequent conversations about higher education with their children, which can be highly valuable in the long-run.

On the other hand, first-generation students may be overwhelmed by processes such as applying for financial aid and enrollment, and their parents won't have the knowledge to best help their children. Lacking the support to complete even small tasks puts first-generation students at risk of dropping out.

Giving first-generation students a leg-up 

First-generation students may not have parents at home acting as college advisors, but similar resources can help them get on an even playing field with their peers.

For example, the counseling service InsideTrack connects professional advisors with students who are struggling academically. Counselors help develop "soft skills" such as time management and organization. Those who had received coaching were more likely to stay in college and graduate.

Benjamin Castleman of the University of Virginia and Lindsay Page of the University of Pittsburgh created a program that nudges students via text message to complete administrative paperwork such as re-enrollment forms and financial aid applications. Among the freshmen who received text reminders, 68% completed their sophomore year, compared with 54% who did not receive any messages.

A new program at the City University of New York provides students with the tools they need to succeed in college, including advising, a subway pass, textbooks, and money to cover the gap between costs and financial aid. The program not only doubled the three-year graduation rate, but also boosted the proportion of students who went on from a two-year community college to a four-year institution. The model is being implemented at some Ohio colleges.

Last month, the Obama administration introduced two initiatives aimed at helping Pell Grant recipients move more quickly toward their degrees. An "On-track Pell bonus" is designed to increase the grants of students enrolled in 15 credits per semester. Pell Grant recipients also can now receive federal aid for three semesters each year to shorten the time to graduation (Dynarski, "The Upshot," New York Times, 2/19). 

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