5 worries keeping your first-gen students up at night

Kathleen Escarcha, staff writerKathleen Escarcha, staff writer

I am one of the first in my family to graduate from an American college.

Although my parents attended university in the Philippines, they did not necessarily have the experience or connections to propel me through the college search process or transition period.

Due to the gaps in my college knowledge, I didn't visit a single school I applied to and spent my freshman year intimidated by the concept of office hours. For many students, navigating college without a family member to rely on for guidance presents unique challenges.

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

Although 32% of undergraduate students identify as first-gen, many still lack the resources and knowledge necessary to persist through graduation.

Combing through our archives, we identified five worries keeping your first-gen students up at night—and how to fix them:

Worry 1: Do I belong at college?

First-generation students tend to feel as if they don't belong, even after they've been accepted to an institution, says Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

These students also experience higher pressure to succeed, since failing school would mean letting their families down, notes Smith. The high pressure and lack of confidence can become self-fulling and lead students to drop out, she explains.

However, research shows that with encouragement and mentorship, these students can become more confident in their abilities and successfully graduate.

Tackling the Student Stress Dilemma

Worry 2: Is my major practical enough?

Like many students, I viewed college as a path to a stable career, but not exactly an environment to explore my interests.

A liberal arts education isn't always the path to riches, and the low average starting salaries tend to deter first-gen students, who already receive an average starting salary 12% below the starting salary of non-first-gen students.

Instead, many of these learners arrive on campus with plans to become a doctor, says Dan Porterfield, president of Franklin and Marshall College. But once these students discover other fields, they begin to broaden their vision of how they can contribute to society, explains Porterfield.

Worry 3: What on earth is a bursar?

In a 2013 survey, 70% of student respondents said they were confused by the terminology on college websites. Communicating effectively becomes even more critical as we welcome increasing numbers of first-generation students to our campuses.

Many of these students can also be confused and overwhelmed by the array of services on campus. Understanding these resources is the "hidden curriculum" of college—the undefined cultural norms, processes, and assumptions essential to navigating the academic, social, and administrative elements of college life, writes Ed Venit, an EAB student success researcher.

Worry 4: Will I make friends?

According to a recent survey by the American College Health Association, college students are especially susceptible to loneliness. Out of 28,000 college students surveyed, more than 60% reported feeling "very lonely" within the year prior to the study.

To tackle student loneliness, colleges are revamping orientation and redesigning residence halls to help students avoid the feelings of loneliness that can lead them to leave.

How to boost student retention with community-centric residence halls

Worry 5: Can I afford my textbooks?

In 2016, student focus groups told New America that their top concern about college was the price of books. As students usually purchase textbooks early in the term, they sometimes have to come up with the money before their financial aid is disbursed.

And if students can't afford to start the class with book in hand, their grades suffer pretty quickly.

To alleviate the costs of textbooks, some institutions are adopting open educational resources that can save students hundreds of dollars.

The world is going digital. College libraries should, too

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