Help first-gen students speak the foreign language of higher ed

Best practice of the week October 9 - 13

Even with an effective and targeted arrival guide, students will have to interact with and get information from other sources, including the course registration system and institutional webpages, which are often filled with inaccessible words and higher education jargon.

Consider how words like "bursar" and "disbursement" would sound to someone with no experience in higher education. It's like a foreign language—which can not only make completing tasks confusing and more difficult, but also reinforce anxieties about belonging that often hinder first-generation college students’ transition.

Also see: 10 jargon terms that trip up first-generation students

A study of community college websites found that 70% of students were confused by higher education terms on institutional websites. While this study focused on community college students, the results would likely be similar if replicated at four-year institutions.

Institutions need to recognize there will be a learning curve for first-generation college students as they acclimate to their institutions. One step toward accomplishing that is to make the language used in initial interactions less confusing, so these students will be more likely to persist.

To make their language more student-friendly, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went through a “translation exercise” for some of their most accessed campus resources for incoming students. The university used the Gunning Fog Index (GFI) to evaluate their communications. The GFI is an online tool that allows users to enter text, then generates a score indicating the reading level necessary to comprehend that text.

The financial aid text that UNC entered generated a score indicating that someone would need a partial college education in order to comprehend the text. Administrators rewrote the passage with guidelines provided by Gunning Fog, and their new text was classified as “widely accessible.”

Recommendations for creating more accessible text include reducing the number of words per sentence, simplifying complex words, and reducing proper nouns and unfamiliar jargon. These steps are especially helpful for colleges who serve a number of students from families with no post-secondary education and non-native English speaking families.

EAB recommends doing a jargon reduction and readability audit of the materials that incoming students must use. We have developed two tools–available now–to guide you through this process.

The first is a higher education terminology translation exercise, which helps identify language commonly used in new student onboarding materials. It includes an activity to create student-friendly translations of technical jargon and prompts users to review language using the Gunning Fog Index. The second is a higher education jargon reduction exercise, which helps identify high-priority materials for translation.

Learn more: 17 best practices for supporting first-generation student success


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