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As the associate provost of Chaminade University of Honolulu, Curtis Washburn has met many first-generation college students.

A small Roman Catholic institution located near the white sands of Waikīkī, Chaminade has a significant population of Polynesian students. More than 400 of the university’s 2,700 students are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. The majority of these students are low-income and the first in their family to go to college, Washburn said.  

“They may be 1 of 10 kids, and they’re the one child that the family decided to send,” he said. “They give him a $100 and send them off to school. ‘Here’s 100 bucks. That should last you four years. Now, go save the family.'”

And that’s where their guidance may end. If so-called helicopter parents typically hover above students from more elite and educated families, many first-generation college students have the opposite problem: parents who may as well be watching their children from a space station.

A study published in the Journal of College Student Retention in 2012 found that first-generation college students receive far less emotional, informational, and financial support from their parents than continuing-generation students. Those less-supported students also reported having higher levels of stress and anxiety than the few first-generation students who did feel supported by their parents. That’s not to say the parents are uncaring or don’t want their children to succeed. In many cases, the parents want to be involved, Washburn said, but they are not sure what level of involvement is appropriate and what advice to provide.

In other cases, he said, parents may not understand the value of college, even encouraging students to drop out so they can more immediately help support the family.

“The problem is that many these parents know nothing about college,” he said. “Students with parents that didn’t go to college don’t have that person they can call when they have a question. They have no map. That child is lost.”

Students whose parents never attended college are less likely to take college prep courses in high school, discuss college with their parents, and apply to college at all, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. First-generation students consistently take fewer classes, complete fewer classes, and earn lower grades than their classmates whose parents attended college, according to the NCES. As a result, they’re less likely to graduate.

As part of a recent program funded by the Walmart Foundation, 50 member institutions of the Council of Independent Colleges received grants to improve the retention of first-generation college students. Several of the colleges focused on parent involvement, among other solutions including building a community for first-generation students, providing mentors, and tracking their progress.

At Chaminade, the university created brochures, handbooks, and videos in Samoan and Micronesian languages to better communicate with students and their parents, who may not speak English. Students are also invited to share cultural dances, legends, and myths as part of the curriculum, and these too are video taped and shared with family members back home.

The College of Mount Saint Vincent, in the Bronx, started a program called the Parent Support Initiative that helped educate parents about the rigors of college. At the College of St. Scholastica, parents were invited to a two-day "Summer Launch" event that included a family luncheon and a break-out session for parents about adjusting to college life. The College of Idaho reimbursed the travel expenses of families who made the trek to its summer orientation for first-generation students.

At Florida Memorial University, a college preparatory program called Black Male College Explorers helped first-generation students graduate from high school and college, providing them with mentoring and other help along the way -- including buying them their first suits. The program costs each student $300, said Danneal L. Jones, vice president for student affairs at the university, and if parents do not get involved in the programs too, their child's spot can be given to another student. 

“We are making a commitment to their child,” Jones said. “And so we make it clear that they have to as well.”

While many of the institutions reported improved retention rates for first-generation college students at the end of their programs, several said parent and family involvement was still "disappointingly low," according to Kerry J. Strand, a sociology professor at Hood College who wrote a report about the initiatives.

"Almost every college or university that attempted to involve parents in their programming for first-generation students expressed some disappointment in the low response and lack of participation," Strand said.

Not all professors and administrators are hoping for more parental involvement, however. At an event promoting the CIC programs, several faculty and staff members expressed apprehension toward, as one audience member put it, "inviting parents in even more." Professors take enough phone calls from helicopter parents, they argued.

Marilyn Moller, director of teacher education at Rosemont College, said it's important to remember that those phone calls -- as annoying as they can be -- are rarely coming from the parents of low-income and first-generation students.

"I really don’t see that as much anymore, and especially with these kinds of students," Moller said. "I hope for phone calls. Often times, with these students, a parent may be his or her only advocate."

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