90% of low-income, first-gen students don't graduate on time. But colleges can change that.

Colleges and universities are identifying the factors that are keeping first-generation students from graduating on time to help them stay on track, Mikhail Zinshteyn reports for The Atlantic

About 90% of low-income, first-generation students do not graduate within six years. Part of the problem is that these students are likely unfamiliar with the "hidden curriculum" that determines students' success in their first year of college, which includes navigating higher education bureaucracy and practicing good study skills. These students tend to come from lower-income backgrounds and must often work more than 20 hours per week to finance their education, leaving them too preoccupied to crack the hidden curriculum code. 

Research shows that mentoring and coaching can make a huge difference in the outcomes of first-generation students who otherwise lack family members who can guide them through college life.

A 2011 study of more than 13,000 college-student records found that students who used mentoring and coaching services were 10% to 15% more likely to go on to another year of college. The study also determined a four percentage point increase in graduation rates of students who had been coached compared with those who received no coaching. 

The Dell Scholars Program is one such initiative, connecting 1,500 college students with peers who serve as mentors.

Also see: Look beyond demographics to serve students better

Education Department data 2012 found that about a quarter of white and Asian-American students are first-generation students, compared with 41% of black students and 61% of Latino students.

Estela Bensimon, a professor of higher education policy at the University of Southern California, has visited institutions across the country to consult with administrators about improving completion rates for black, Native American, and Latino students. Bensimon uses what she calls an 'equity scorecard' to analyze student enrollment and faculty data by race. With that data, Bensimon guides higher education leaders as they change their hiring practices and coursework design to reflect the needs of minority students. 

Bensimon worked with the mathematics chair of the Community College of Aurora to help the school meet a state goal of raising the share of Latino students who earn postsecondary degrees and certificates.

Aurora made a number of changes. It overhauled the system used to hire new faculty to promote diverse hires. The college also started monitoring performance for students of various racial backgrounds—then used the data to teach instructors how to improve the academic outcomes for non-white students.

Why first-generation students don't go to their advisors—and how to get them there

According to Bensimon, the achievement gap among white, black, and Latino students is now nearly closed at Aurora.

William Franklin, VP of student affairs at California State University, Dominguez Hills, attributes his school's improved graduation rates within the last three years to rethinking how to best serve underrepresented students. Most of the institution's students are either low-income, black, or Latino. 

The university implemented a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen whose test scores indicated they could use more help in math and English. The free, two-month session reviews "hidden-curriculum" concepts, introduces students to the campus facilities, and helps them form relationships with peers and mentors. Cal State Dominguez Hills also revamped its student mentoring program with the introduction of a data tracker to monitor student performance and allow advisers to recommend coursework and support. In addition, the school partnered with Stanford University on an initiative to promote students' psychological well-being and confidence.

Since Cal State Dominguez Hills adopted the reforms, its first-year retention rates have increased from 78% in 2010 to almost 82% currently. The institution plans to share what it has learned through a 44-university coalition called Re-Imagining the First Year (Zinshteyn, The Atlantic, 3/13). 

Learn more about how community colleges can improve retention


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