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Imagine the first-generation students who end up at one of the top colleges in the country. They are largely from lower-income families and more likely to be minority students than the entire student body. They enter universities with amazing potential to provide academic and other resources. But are they well served? Are they happy? Should the universities be doing more? These are some of the questions Rachel Gable answers in The Hidden Curriculum: First Generation Students at Legacy Universities (Princeton University Press). Gable, director of institutional effectiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University, conducted more than 100 interviews with first-generation students at Harvard and Georgetown Universities. She answered questions about the book via email.

Q: Did the students you interviewed, on the whole, say they were glad they were at Harvard and Georgetown?

A: Yes, in general, the first-generation college students in this study were quite satisfied with their college experiences. When asked to rate their academic and social experiences from one to 10, the ratings they gave more or less matched those offered by their peers who had parents with college degrees. In both groups the median score was an eight out of 10.

More interesting than student satisfaction ratings was the way they explained the context behind the grade they gave to their experiences. I was surprised by how varied the first-generation students’ experiences were, and how those experiences were linked to high school context, precollege experiences, parental relationships, choice of major and other personal factors. Approximately half of the first-generation college students who were interviewed said they had no problems whatsoever in college. Among those who did have challenges, most nonetheless wouldn’t trade schools if given the choice. Additionally, a small but not insignificant percentage of continuing-generation students described feeling like first-generation college students in all but the name, a point which highlighted to me the permeability of these categories and the potential importance of making programming and services available and easily accessible to first-generation and all students who feel they could benefit.

There is a narrative in the public sphere that first-generation students attending elite colleges are miserable. This narrative is embraced by some on the left, who use their purported unhappiness, in particular those first-generation students who are also low-income and underrepresented minorities, to decry the hollowness of self-serving diversity campaigns that do little to increase inclusion and belonging for all students. It is also embraced by those on the right who seek to dismantle affirmative action and point to the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s argument that Black students who enter highly selective colleges feeling less prepared than their peers may be better served by attending “lesser schools.”

This study does not find first-generation college students, many of whom are also low-income and underrepresented minorities, to be miserable. On the contrary, while they were more likely to describe college as a roller coaster of terror and exhilaration, they, in fact, found their faculty relationships more rewarding, their friendships deeper and more life-altering, and their career opportunities more expansive than their continuing-generation peers, who saw their elite college experience as one more step in the path they assumed they were always destined to travel. Contrary to the late Justice Scalia’s argument, I would recommend that offices of admissions at selective universities double down on recruiting first-generation college students precisely because they drink more deeply of the educational opportunities set before them.

Q: What is the "hidden curriculum"?

A: The “hidden curriculum” is often described by education scholars as the set of tacit rules in a formal educational context that insiders consider to be natural and universal. Those with prior knowledge of those tacit rules are prepared to succeed because they have learned the rules before, and those with no or little prior knowledge don’t even realize when they are breaking the rules let alone how to use these rules to their advantage.

I want my readers to know that every college campus, indeed every educational context, has its own hidden curriculum of tacit norms and rules that those in charge (faculty, administrators, trustees) and those with prior knowledge (students with similar educational backgrounds to the new educational context) believe to be natural, universal and simply “how it’s done,” while those with little prior experience learn its contours through a series of missteps, trial and error, and baffling encounters they struggle to explain. The first-generation college students at Harvard and Georgetown were able to show me the hidden curriculum on their campuses through their stories of successes and struggles, access and denial of access, opportunities afforded them and opportunities missed. For them the hidden curriculum took the form of learning how to make appointments and engage in office hours chitchat with faculty, how to respond to invasive questions thought by peers to be innocuous conversation starters, how to engage in small talk with strangers, knowing when to dance and when not to dance at a party, and the slow but inevitable alteration of one’s wardrobe, including the telltale and clichéd but true initial repugnance to and ultimate embrace of boat shoes.

Selective universities that have a history of recruiting high-income students whose parents also attended selective universities or even the same university (I call these legacy universities) struggle to fulfill their promises to build diverse and inclusive campuses unless or until they undertake a thorough examination of the hidden curriculum at work on their campus. Once their tacit norms are made explicit, they can be debated, altered, even overruled. At the very least, making the hidden curriculum explicit will provide many first-generation college students with a clearer guide to “how it’s done.” Even better, to make the hidden curriculum explicit by identifying, examining and debating it in public is to acknowledge that the rules we assume to be “how it’s done” can be redrafted.

Q: Do you think first-generation students are better off if they attend institutions where there are more of them than at an elite university?

A: The students in this book frequently explained that their high school guidance counselors would steer them toward the local community college or regional university, and they mused on the differences between their experiences at Harvard and Georgetown and those they imagined they would have had at the less selective institution they were expected to attend. Many explained they applied on a whim and that their parents did not see the difference between Harvard or Georgetown and the perfectly decent college up the road. Yet, despite describing significant risks, personal and family disruption, and a sizable dose of terror at the unknown, very few ultimately regretted the choice they made. So for them the short answer would be “no.”

I agree with them. College should be about getting outside of your comfort zone. It also can be about finding pathways to success and fulfillment that you never knew existed. This latter is very clearly what elite universities offer to all their students, but the former is also just as important.

But these colleges can do more to mitigate the sense of estrangement their first-generation students felt. Earlier, more frequent and more specific advice about what to expect, even by way of phone calls from older students in the summer before college, would have been profoundly beneficial. Financial support for participation in pre-orientation programming, or online options for those who could not attend pre-orientation activities in person, would have provided many of these students with a road map to read the early landmarks and mile markers associated with an enriching college experience. Elite institutions have their own codes and rituals, and first generation students in particular would benefit from a primer, especially since many students who are soon to be their undergraduate peers come from families with a history not only of college-going but of selective college attendance (sometimes even the same college).

Q: How can the top universities do a better job with these students?

A: Examine your campus’s hidden curriculum, consider its relevance and its readiness to support the diverse students on your campus, and be ready to critique or revise it and the received wisdom that supports it. Do this by inviting a demographically diverse cross-section of your students to share their experiences with you, including their successes and challenges to date, and ask them if they would be willing to provide advice to campus leaders for how to ensure a positive experience for the next cohort. Do not forget to solicit advice from continuing-generation students as well, as the convergences and divergences of their experiences compared to their first-generation peers may surprise you.

I would also suggest considering the specific advice that the first-generation students at Harvard and Georgetown offered for improving academic experiences, social experiences and the experiences of parents of first-generation college students. They provided some great advice, which is captured in the book, and I don’t want to steal their thunder. Finally, pilot some or even as many as you can of your students’ feasible and sound suggestions -- don’t take a single approach to student success. Because first-generation college students comprise a wonderfully complex and varied group whose needs and ambitions intersect with their continuing-generation peers, be prepared with multiple and iterative solutions to common problems.

Q: You write of the importance of parents. What can top universities do for parents to help the students succeed?

A: One of my favorite interviews was with a young woman from Georgetown who described calling her mother every day, after almost every class, to tell her all about what she was learning in her classes and the world of ideas and thinkers that she discovered in college. Her mother relished these calls, and in a very real if unseen way, she partook in the college experience and supported her daughter’s continued academic development through those daily chats. This first-generation student described the sacrifices her mother made and was still making to get her to and through college, but she felt that her mother’s involvement was overlooked when the development office or the booster club sought financial donations from “Hoya families” (Hoyas being the nickname of Georgetown community members). This young woman pointed out that while her mother couldn’t make a financial gift to the school, she was still a part of “Hoya family,” and efforts could be made to appropriately include her and other parents of first-generation students like her.

Some ideas to deepen parental engagement provided by the students in this book include a newsletter to parents written by students and translated into several common home languages (“Yes, Mom, I’m OK” was a suggested title), funding for students to bring their families to a parents’ weekend and graduation, and periodic online engagement throughout the year in the form of virtual meet-and-greets and Q&A sessions (again, translated into common home languages) covering topics such as study abroad, mental health and the importance of extracurricular engagement.

Other suggestions underscore the importance of providing inclusive experiences for the families of first-generation and all students at key moments of the college journey. For instance, across the nation regional alumni groups host new student parties in the summer before college. In some regions, these parties are hosted at the local country club or the house of a wealthy alum. Colleges could consider establishing suggested guidelines for the venue of such parties to include public parks and museum grounds rather than private homes or clubs. Ultimately, the message of inclusion and the practices that convey this message should expand to the families of first-generation students, and not just the students themselves, as they, too, are an important part of the college-going story.

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