First steps with first-gens: 4 ways to get them started strong

According to a study from the University of California, Los Angeles' Higher Education Research Institute, graduation rates for first-generation students are, on average, 14 percentage points lower than other students. 

This gap is particularly problematic considering a full 32% of undergraduate students in the United States identify as first-generation. Students who are the first in their families to pursue a college degree are just as intelligent and motivated as their non-first-generation peers, yet they tend to lack some of the resources and knowledge necessary to navigate the complex college years.

But there are steps colleges can take to level the playing field between first-generation students and students whose parents attended college.

Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College, was herself a first-generation student, which makes her especially receptive to the type of support these students need. McCartney suggests four tactics schools can use to put first-generation students on the path to on-time graduation from the very beginning.

1. Pay close attention to context

It can be easy to see a lack of advanced courses and extracurricular activities, or perhaps lower-than-average SAT scores, and immediately consider an applicant under-qualified.

But in the case of first-generation students, this isn't necessarily the case. Applicants might have attended high schools where these advanced courses weren't offered or where affordable SAT prep was unavailable. These students may also have been working part-time jobs while in school, leaving no time to pursue extracurriculars.

This is important when communicating with first-generation applicants' guidance counselors, too. McCartney says these counselors are often stretched too thin to really get to know each applicant and understand his or her potential.  

2. Join forces with community colleges

Many first-generation students will begin their postsecondary education at community colleges, with the hopes of transferring to a four-year school later on. Two- and four-year institutions can work together to make this possible.

McCartney explains how Smith College partners with four different community colleges to ease the transfer process. But she also points out that Smith admits transfer students with the same competitive process they use for first-year students. McCartney advises schools: "Don't think of transfers as an add-on; see these students as the valued members of your academic community that they can be."

3. Be transparent about cost

Sticker prices can give first-generation students the misconception that certain schools—such as private institutions in particular—are completely out of their price range.

But while financial aid can make these schools attainable, first-generation students might not know about all of their options. McCartney says financial-aid calculators and transparent explanations from admissions representatives can help. 

Learn why you may want to send a few extra reminders to complete the FAFSA this year

4. Pair students with mentors and support

When first-generation students first enroll, they are often less "college ready" than their peers, both academically and socially. 

How University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill creates a welcoming environment for their first-generation students

McCartney says faculty and student mentors can make a huge difference, as can getting students involved in engaging research opportunities (McCartney, Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/16).

Toolkit: 17 tactics for supporting first-generation college students

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