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The road to a college degree is not one that is traveled alone—and the first years of that journey take place long before a student steps on campus. It is critically important to success in college that higher ed institutions provide both students and their families a welcoming and supportive community. This is especially true for first-generation college students, who are working hard to become the first in their families to earn a degree without the benefit of advice based on their parents’ own college-going experiences.

Not knowing how things work in college can put the families of first-generation students at a disadvantage. They want to provide that important support for their student on their college journey, but they may not know how to do so specifically or strategically.

As institutions work to support and celebrate our first-gen students, we must be mindful about including families so that they feel like a part of their student’s new community and know that they are a valued partner to help support the student on the shared journey to success.

Research has shown that even without their own college experiences to lean on, most families of first-gen students provide essential support, from financial to emotional, including encouraging phone calls, text messages or visits to campus. In the most recent Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, 26 percent of first-generation students disagreed at least somewhat that their college understands their connections to their family and home community. (Among the 2,003 students responding to the survey, conducted with support from Kaplan, 795 were first generation.)

It’s crucial that institutions do more to educate parents about the hurdles first-gen students may face and how to navigate them; to give them the language to use to support their student throughout the different phases of their journey, from application to graduation; and to make information, opportunities and resources easily accessible for them.

Embracing First-Gen Families

North Central College’s nationally recognized first-generation program, Cardinal First, embraces a student’s identity as first-gen as an asset and works intentionally to engage with their parents and families to reinforce that it is not a deficit that they didn’t earn a degree themselves. We intentionally create a strong sense of community and connection, and we want that to extend to our students’ families, as well.

Although they didn’t earn a college degree, the parents of first-gen students have a lot of wisdom that can help their child navigate college, and there are many ways institutions can engage and inform parents and families of first-gen students to help them provide that support.

A student’s sense of belonging plays a big role in whether they persist in college or not. Prioritizing a sense of belonging among their families is also important.

One way North Central shows that we value the life wisdom of parents and family members who didn’t go to college is by having our first-gen faculty and staff share what they learned about life from their parents. This is a powerful way to show the value of the life wisdom of parents who didn’t go to college.

Cardinal First offers special sessions for first-gen parents at summer orientation and welcomes all first-gen students and their families to North Central with a breakfast during Welcome Week. The separate graduation recognition and pinning ceremony we host each year for families of first-gen students each spring is as eagerly anticipated and almost as large as the commencement ceremony itself.

We don’t define “family” at these events, so students can invite as many guests as they choose. Why? We recognize that “family” often extends to friends, neighbors and mentors who have all played meaningful and important roles in their journey toward graduation.

This year, Cardinal First hosted a series of 10 virtual workshops for current and prospective first-gen students and their families via Facebook Live, covering topics from financial aid and career development to education abroad and undergraduate research opportunities. Each workshop featured faculty and staff, as well first-gen students sharing their experiences. These workshops were recorded and translated into Spanish, now available 24-7 on the program website. Parents and families were able to meet virtually with North Central faculty and staff and experience their students’ planning and decision-making process alongside them.

While FERPA prevents colleges and universities from sharing certain private information with students’ families, they can share some details that are tremendously helpful. It’s important to help families understand the difference between high school and college for their student—including that the student is only in class for 15 or 18 hours a week but that they need to be spending 20 or 25 hours a week studying. This is essential information so students and families understand the amount of time needed to be a successful college student and prioritizing that over working extra hours at a part-time job. (Although, sadly, it’s necessary for many of my students to work more than that.)

We share examples of class schedules and course syllabi so parents know how much work and time their student needs to dedicate to school. This allows parents to support students in developing good time management and make suggestions about activities. We also help them understand what will be useful for their student as they navigate the culture shock that often comes with beginning college. This includes establishing a clear point of contact for students and families if they have questions about how to better support their student.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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It’s also important to help families understand the value of opportunities for their student to network and build soft skills employers are looking for, as well as the benefit of opting for distinctive experiences that will be of interest to prospective employers or graduate schools.

Engaging Families Early

Just as with students, institutions must also engage with first-gen families before they even arrive on campus.

Be intrusive with outreach in the months before new first-gen students start at your institution. Families of first-gen students want them to succeed and they want to know their student will be supported throughout their time in college. They want to know what opportunities and resources will be available to their child as a first-gen student on campus, so institutions would be wise to proactively inform, educate and help them understand how and when to encourage their students to connect with them.

The parents and families of first-gen students need to be valued members of the college or university community, as they are equally invested in the success of their students. The national four-year graduation rate for first-gen students is only 27 percent, so it’s important to partner with families to help their students achieve their goal of earning a college degree.

Colleges and families are on the same team striving for the same thing: helping students achieve their goal of earning a college degree and taking advantage of all the possibilities that come with it.

Read more about findings from the Student Voice survey on whether students feel understood by their colleges.

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