Transforming the First-Generation College Student Experience

17 strategies for enhancing student success

Innovative practices to ensure that first-generation students feel welcome and comfortable while they're on campus, and prepared for the next step when they graduate.

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First-generation students now make up 24% of students enrolled in four-year institutions, but this growing population faces a number of obstacles.

This study will help you identify areas where you can better support the first-generation students on your campus. Download the complete publication or explore the table of contents below for the main challenges facing first-generation students and 17 strategies to overcome them.

First-generation students face unique obstacles in higher education

As the number of first-generation students at four-year institutions grows, pressure to improve outcomes for this group also increases. Only 11% of first-generation college students graduate in six years. In contrast, 25% leave school after the first year. While the academic work is an adjustment for many students, the administrative barriers may be harder for first-generation students to overcome. Without parents or siblings who have attended college, first-generation students struggle to make sense of unfamiliar higher education jargon and processes.

In addition, there are social and emotional barriers. First-generation students find themselves surrounded by students from different economic backgrounds, who have grown up with parents and siblings in college. It can be difficult to identify other first-generation students or develop new campus-based networks of support. Faced with all of these challenges, first-generation students may wonder if they truly belong on campus.

Deep divide in institutional approaches

Institutions have tried a broad range of efforts to improve the completion rates of first-generation college students. We generally see these take on one of two approaches:

  • Dedicated, high-touch programs designed specifically for first-generation college students. While these programs can have a big impact, they only serve a few students at a time and are difficult to scale.
  • Broad, campus-wide efforts to better connect all students with important resources. For the most part, these programs have not been effective in improving first-generation student success.

To effectively serve the growing numbers of first-generation students, institutions must find the happy medium between these two approaches: targeted support that recognizes the unique identity and challenges that these students face, while reaching a large number of students on campus.

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