Send First-Gen Students to Grad School

Many students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college, need help from faculty members to think about what happens next, argues Paula M. Krebs.

August 4, 2016
iStock/Steve Debenport

If you’re teaching at a four-year college or university, you may have had some training in the needs of your first-generation college students, many of whom have probably transferred to your institution from a community college. You probably haven't been asked to think about first-gen status in relation to what happens after graduation, though. Students whose families don't know much about college need more help acculturating to the expectations of college. Likewise, many students, perhaps even most students, need help from faculty members to think about what happens after college.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, graduate degrees bring higher wages to their holders, but their value varies by field. Some occupations demand graduate degrees at the entry level, and others, such as the master’s in social work, want you to have some experience first. Most first-generation college students don’t know how to begin to think about graduate study, however.

At my public regional university, we offer quite a few master's-level programs, mostly geared toward professional qualifications: teaching degrees such as the M.A.T.; professional programs such as the M.S.W., M.P.A. or M.B.A. Those programs can complement all sorts of undergrad social science degrees or humanities degrees, building on the critical thinking, writing, speaking, synthesis, project management and data analysis skills of a liberal arts degree. Other graduate programs aim to give students skills and credentials that make them better qualified for particular kinds of careers: public history or criminal justice programs, or library and information systems degrees.

Whatever the graduate program, however, its very graduateness might make it intimidating to students whose families are unfamiliar with graduate education. Most of our students don't have parents who have professional positions; most don’t have advanced-degree holders in the family. If students are to get advice about graduate school, it’s probably going to come from their faculty members.

Faculty members don't have to become career counselors, but if we're at master's-granting universities, we can start by learning about the graduate degree programs at our own institutions. Perhaps faculty in foreign languages can encourage their students to take their training and enthusiasm into public health programs. Maybe sociology B.A.s could move into clinical psychology master's programs. At my university, we have a criminal justice master's program that can help any undergraduate move into many different kinds of work in and around the justice system, and our master's in public administration helps students into jobs in local government.

With the increasing importance of graduate degrees in the workplace, and the decreasing likelihood that employers will pay for workers to pursue graduate degrees, it falls to undergraduate faculty to think about how we can become better advisers for students who would benefit from graduate degrees. We can help them to learn what programs are worth the investment, both of tuition dollars and of delayed entry into the labor market, as well as to choose undergraduate courses that will move them to the next step.

It can be a tough sell for first-generation students to talk to their families about spending more years in the classroom. The more we can help students to sort out the advantages and disadvantages of various degree and certificate programs and of delayed entry into grad programs vs. moving straight from undergraduate, the better they’ll be able to talk with the folks at home about their plans.

Should they take out more loans to get a master’s degree? Should they work first and pursue a grad certificate at night or on weekends? Will they be eligible for aid or assistantships in grad school? We can help our students figure out the right questions to ask.

We can also start talking to students about postgraduation options sooner in their undergrad careers. If a student wonders aloud about topping her art degree with an M.B.A., we can encourage her to take some basic business courses while she's still an undergraduate. If a student thinks he might want to teach, but he doesn’t want to get an undergrad education degree, we can look up the requirements for postbaccalaureate teaching certification to see how he can get a head start right away.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do in undergrad programs is to demystify graduate study for all our students, so the people who don’t know much about it can feel free to ask questions. Familiarize yourself with the graduate options at your own institution and the financial aid possibilities for each one. Put yourself in your students’ shoes: If you were a junior and had never thought about graduate school, what would you need to be told? What mistakes might you make?

If you work at an institution that has graduate programs, ask your dean to set up an opportunity for faculty members to learn about the requirements for graduate admissions and the expectations of grad students at your school. Invite the graduate dean to a department meeting. He or she is looking to boost enrollments and so will be thrilled to come and tout the advantages of the various degree and certificate programs.

If you don’t have grad programs, look around your area to see what programs are within driving distance (for your commuting students), check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics link above and look into the resources about master’s programs at the Council of Graduate Schools. Find out from your alumni office what kinds of degrees and certificates your grads are pursuing after graduation. Talk to alumni.

If you understand the various postbachelor’s options available for your students, you can make a big difference in how they are able to use what you’ve given them in the undergrad classroom. There’s room for a lot more connection between undergraduate education in one discipline and graduate education in another. It’s the undergrad faculty who’ll have to help students to see those connections.

I’m not recommending sending more of our students to research Ph.D.s -- the degrees most of us have and understand. That’s a whole different topic and raises a whole different set of questions about access, social class, diversity, time to degree and other issues widely discussed in the higher ed literature. What I’m advocating here is keeping the option of graduate study -- the kind that can result in career advancement and increased earnings -- in front of all of our students, not just the privileged ones.


Paula M. Krebs is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts. On Twitter, she is @PaulaKrebs.


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