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

First-generation students may be unaware of the advising services their universities offer

Julia Haskins, Staff Writer


Julia Haskins, staff writer

In recent years, more first-generation students are enrolling in college, but often, the campus forces them to navigate a bewildering "hidden curriculum" to access the advising services they need to stay in school and graduate.

At many institutions, advising services are set up to support one very particular kind of student. But student populations are changing, and supporting every individual's success will mean adapting to meet new needs.

First generation students juggle more priorities

First-generation students have more demands on their time and attention than other students, says Lynne Martin, executive director at Students Rising Above. The organization helps low-income, first-generation students gain entry to college and guides them through to graduation.

First-generation students are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds, and these students may take on multiple jobs to pay for school or support their families. They are also likely to attend college close to home, making familial ties even more important to sustain.

Because first-generation students are juggling so many different obligations, advising may register as just a blip on their radars.

Boldly going where no one (in the family) has gone before

The new opportunities that some students view as exciting may be intimidating to a first-generation student who is less familiar with the ins and outs of college life.

"Whether it's walking into an unknown office, reading a bill statement, or talking with a PhD faculty, the level of 'scary' could keep first-generation students from reaching out," says Lynda Sukolsky, director of the Academic Achievement Center at Seton Hill University. "It's safer to just avoid or safer to try and navigate things on your own."

Navigating 'the hidden curriculum'

It doesn't matter how robust an institution's advising services are if students don't know they exist. A first-generation student struggling in class may not realize that faculty are available for just that reason.

"Experts on first-generation students sometimes refer to the often confusing array of student support services as 'the hidden curriculum,' something that has to be learned on the fly by students who don't always grow up knowing about things like college advising," says Ed Venit, senior director at EAB.

That's why making advising more visible is crucial to bringing in first-generation students unfamiliar with the service, says Stephanie Kinkaid, assistant director of the Wackerle Career Center at Monmouth College. She recommends that university leaders identify which social media channels get the best response from students and design advising awareness campaigns in those channels.

Kinkaid also encourages college advisors to share their success stories. Alumni who have thrived despite the odds can encourage and inspire current first-generation students.

Set up guideposts

Experts also say college leaders should make advising resources as easy-to-find as possible. If students are forced to wade through tons of material to get what they need, then they are likely to give up.

University websites, apps, and social media channels should clearly direct students to common knowledge gaps, such as:

  • How to communicate with advisors;
  • The benefits of advising;
  • What to expect from advising; and
  • Where to go for additional support.

Connect students to advisors from the start

Orientation week and pre-college programs offer ideals settings to introduce advising—students are free to ask questions in a welcoming environment, knowing that their peers are also confused.

Students at Monmouth meet with faculty members when they arrive on campus for orientation, paving the way for more in-depth conversations later. Administrators also match students to faculty advisors based on information from student intake surveys. During Seton Hill's orientation, each academic division hosts a social function for their entering freshman class, which "provides that meet-and-greet and break-the-ice time right up front," Sukolsky says.

Also in the EAB Daily Briefing: The strategy that can help you use advising resources more efficiently

Give students long-term support

Introducing advisors and getting through orientation are a great start—but experts encourage leaders to build a network that supports student all the way to graduation.

"One of the things we tell the students that we work with is get to know your professor," Martin says. "You have to be able to build the relationship so when you have an academic problem you can say, 'What do I do here?'"

Making those connections is far easier said than done for first-generation students, but intrusive advising models can push them in the right direction. If students do not actively pursue advising, these models ensure that they receive ongoing support. For example, Monmouth holds a mentoring day during which afternoon classes are cancelled so that students can meet with their advisors.

Intrusive technology can also point students toward advising. One such tool, EAB's Guide, is a  mobile app that "nudges" students to make the best academic choices.

"At its core, Guide provides structured prompts and nudges that make students aware of the useful services available to them, and when to use each one," Venit says, "so we are actually providing a roadmap to navigate the hidden curriculum."

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