When it comes to enrolling, retaining and graduating first-generation college students, many people first think about community colleges and public institutions that focus on serving working-class students. While those institutions, indeed, do attract many first-generation students, some small private institutions are hoping some of these same students will consider their colleges instead. Twenty of these small liberal arts institutions, with the help of grant s from the Wal-Mart Foundation  offered to members of the Council of Independent Colleges  are augmenting existing programs that cater to students who either are or will be the first in their family to attend college.
At grant-winning Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., for example, 47 percent of the students in its incoming class are first-generation college students, according to Sean Ryan, the university’s vice president for enrollment management. Serving these students complements the mission of the socially conscious Roman Catholic university, Ryan said, adding that its geographic location plays a considerable role in the number of first-generation students it serves. Among the 50 states, Kentucky ranks 47th  in the percentage of people over 25 with at least a bachelor’s degree, at 20 percent. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data , this is below the national average of 27 percent.
With the grant, the university will create a part-time staff position specifically for advising first-generation students, a position modeled after a similar advisor for athletes. Changes at Bellarmine will come not only at the staff level to help first-generation students. The university will also train and dispatch student mentors who were themselves first-generation students to help their peers navigate the college process.
“More folks are becoming aware of first-generation students as an at-risk population,” Ryan said of those in higher education, especially at small private institutions. “These students aren’t as familiar with how to navigate these opportunities that are out there and need people to help them really become integrated into the [college] community.”
At Carroll University, in Waukesha, Wis., 37 percent of the student body consists of first-generation students, according to Provost Joanne Passaro. The university, as a result of this grant funding, will introduce “The First-Generation Student Success Program” in which it will work with a predominately Hispanic-serving charter middle school  in nearby Milwaukee. Carroll students will serve as advisors to these middle school students, Passaro said, emphasizing the value of a college education. Once these students graduate from this charter middle school, there is often a problem advising students to stay on a track toward college. Passaro said the university’s new program will follow these students through the various public high schools they attend after they complete their studies at the charter middle school to help them “keep their eyes on the prize of college admission, graduation” and “to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.” Even if these prospective students decide to attend another university instead of Carroll, Passaro said the program will be a success.
“Four-year publics are becoming more exclusive and less and less access institutions,” Passaro said. “Often first-generation parents would prefer to send [their children] to institutions like Carroll. We have the ability to focus on individual students. I think parents perceive that. Small privates have always had that mission, but I think that wasn’t clear until recently.”
Community outreach is also an important method of serving first-generation students at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., according to Carol Streit, the university’s vice president for enrollment management. The university will supplement its recruitment of potential and retention of current first-generation students with the grant funds. Streit said that, when visiting local communities with large proportions of first-generation Americans and low-income families, the university’s program attempts to dispel common misconceptions about both the accessibility and feasibility of going to college, whether or not it be at Lesley. As Lesley’s educational mission has primarily been training teachers, Streit said the opportunity for first-generation students from their own communities to return as teachers and representative enhances both their communities and the university. Collaborating with other pre-college programs for prospective first-generation college students, the Lesley program also brings these students to college campuses to see their future educational options first-hand.
“We’re not talking about Lesley so much, but college in general,” Streit said of the university’s outreach program. “For example, we have a lot of articulation agreements with community colleges. It might not be a kid’s choice, but it’s a good choice. The worst thing you can do is try to sell a place to students who cannot succeed there for whatever reason. We show them the truth and help them seek the right place for them. In the end, it helps our reputation and helps who we are.”
Sometimes assisting first-generation students extends beyond the classroom, as is the case at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis. With the assistance of this grant, the university will guide first-generation students through typical college-preparation, summer "bridge" courses before the beginning of their first academic year, according to Dan Krhin, director of the college’s support services. These courses will help students who lack basic writing skills. Of note beyond the classroom, however, Krhin said students showing academic success will be placed in paid internships. This, he added, is another way to demonstrate to first-generation college students and their parents the value of a liberal arts degree in the “work world.” The new grant-funded program mirrors the federal McNair Scholars Program , which assists underrepresented or first-generation students who wish to pursue a doctoral degree in a similar experience-driven manner.
“Some people assume everyone knows why college is important, but that’s not always the case,” Krhin said, adding that both the university’s internship placement and the McNair Scholars Program help first-generation students understand this importance. “In my experience, many [first-generation students], although they’re smart, bright people, can’t see how a liberal arts degree is connected to a career path. This is 2008, and some people come out of communities where they don’t know anybody with a college degree besides their teachers.”
St. Edwards University in Austin, Tex., will use its grant to introduce a four-week “bridge” program in the summer before a student’s first year, according to Carol Januszeski, director of the university’s foundation relations. She added that this “bridge” will allow students to take non-credit-bearing remedial courses which, before the program, they would have had to have taken during the academic year. The program, she said, is a “win-win” for both the university and its students, noting that both can save money and time introducing this non-credit-but-essential coursework during this summer. This “bridge” program takes a cue from the university’s successful College Assistance Migrant Program  (CAMP), which offers intensive English language instruction among other subjects. Students enrolled in this program, predominately sons and daughters of migrant or seasonal farm works, are then compensated with stipends to help offset the cost of their being away from their families. The lessons learned from the CAMP program will now be extended to all first-generation students when the university begins the “bridge” program next fall.
“We’ve determined with our experience with so many students that just because some of them have lower test scores or other deficiencies, that doesn’t mean they can’t be totally successful with some extra help,” Januszeski said.
When the CIC presented the opportunity for 20 of its member institutions to receive the $100,000 grants, over 200 institutions expressed an interest, said president Richard Ekman. A number of these colleges already have programs in place to assist first-generation students, he added.
The advantages of small liberal arts colleges for first-generation students are manifold, according to Ekman. Their small structure allows them to focus individual attention on types of students who may need more direction, he said, offering them tutoring and mentoring programs. That is important because the odds are against first generation students, he said. A 2000 follow-up to a National Educational Longitudinal Study  found that “only 24 percent of first-generation students succeed in earning a bachelor’s degree compared with 68 percent of students whose parents received a bachelor’s degree.”
“The solution is not to draw the drawbridge back and put alligators in the moat,” Ekman said of the sometime refusal of highly selective colleges to accept students who may not be well prepared for college. “You want the community college system and K-12 to do a better job, but that doesn’t take the burden off colleges. It’s possible that [small, middle-selectivity private institutions] could become known as places where first-generation students could have success. We’re recognizing the changing needs and demands of these students.”