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Maybe I’m just not good enough. Maybe college isn’t for me.”

The familiar cry from students unable to meet the changing demands of higher education continues to grow louder. Conversations on how administrators, support staff and alumni can support first-generation and/or low-income (FGLI) students are becoming much more common on college campuses. COVID-19 has elevated dialogues about access and equity up the ladder of college and university priorities and turned our attention more toward these issues.

But are the people engaged in those dialogues truly paying attention to the needs of the FGLI population? Will current college and university efforts carve a pathway in the right direction?

It’s increasingly clear that many FGLI students require additional guidance in navigating the wilderness that is their first college experience. New research by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education and the University of Pennsylvania shows that FGLI students generally struggle in meeting academic standards, gaining a sense of belonging and acquiring the skills necessary for life both during and after college. And despite lip service to the contrary, as well as some honest efforts, higher education institutions in general simply aren’t adequately sensitive to FGLI students’ needs or doing enough to retain them and help them succeed. Data from the Pell Institute reveal that only 11 percent of students who identify as both first-generation and low-income graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years of matriculation.

So what can be done? How can we ensure our approaches truly support FGLI students?

Key Areas of Concern

Colleges and universities can begin by, in fact, simply maintaining programs that truly focus on helping such often-marginalized student groups. The presence of institutional support systems affirms and uplifts the experiences of first-generation and/or low-income students, be it through programmatic efforts or staff members who share similar backgrounds.

That said, many programs on campuses are siloed. Very few collaborate directly with other departments and schools on their campus, let alone other colleges and universities. Through independent research, we decided to evaluate the work that various colleges and universities across the United States had done to successfully support FGLI students. We conducted a qualitative analysis of 1,200 four-year, public and private nonprofit institutions based on two primary variables:

  • Presence of a publicly advertised program supporting first-generation and/or low-income students, determined by whether we were able to find one via online search browsers or institutional websites, and;
  • Presence of an institutionally funded or endorsed program—for example, the University of Pennsylvania Penn First Plus program in addition to Student Support Services (SSS), a federally sponsored TRIO program.

The data we collected drew upon information from institutional websites that demonstrated whether a college or university had active initiatives for FGLI students and what programs and services they offered. From our overall examination of the 1,200 institutions, we found only half publicly advertised a program—whether institutionally affiliated or a TRIO.

Once we identified the institutions that advertised programs and services, we surveyed the type and frequency of those offerings. We then categorized our findings into four primary areas:

  • Financial. Did the institution provide financial support—and not only for tuition expenses? A model program in this field is Georgetown University’s necessity grants, offering students funding to purchase essential clothing such as winter coats and to attend conferences and travel to job interviews.
  • Academic. Our definition of academic support included advising and tutoring for FGLI students, as well as pedagogical training for faculty and staff with responsibilities engaging with them. For example, Texas A&M University’s Routh First-Generation Center allows students to choose times for office hours that best support them individually.
  • Personal and social. Those areas include community building, family-based programming and other initiatives that take place during academic breaks. Virginia Tech’s Office of New Student and Family Programs, for instance, hosts a family weekend brunch and reception for FGLI families during the fall semester.
  • Career and professional development. We identified colleges that help FGLI students transition from the undergraduate experience into the labor market or graduate school. A case in point is Loyola Marymount University, which offers an “After LMU” course each fall geared towards third- and fourth-year FGLI students.

5 Best Practices

Based on our research into hundreds of programs, we offer five best practices for supporting for FGLI students.

No. 1: Ensure that financial aid covers all of a student’s needs, including living expenses. Sounds intuitive, right? But the fact is that many students continue to struggle to cover the overall cost of their college attendance. Colleges and universities should consider the amount of money students need not only to survive but also to thrive. Beyond the cost of attendance, they should factor in what students must pay for experiential learning, professional development and various other opportunities, as well as their basic needs. Often, FGLI students are unable to pay for textbooks or other classroom supplies. And instead of participating in extracurricular activities or internships, they must work a part- or full-time job to pay for housing or meals not covered by institutional aid packages.

When institutions fail to meet a student’s full financial need, that student may have to drop out. Even those who do graduate may struggle to secure employment or end up working in jobs that don’t require degrees, because they lack the experiences many other students accrue during college that make them attractive and competitive. Such experiences include internships, community service roles or leadership opportunities. In short, adequate financial aid, especially in the form of scholarships or grants, is the fundamental ingredient for a student’s success.

No. 2: Allocate institutional funds and resources alongside federal TRIO-funded programs. While federal TRIO programs, like Student Support Services, have been an access and success bedrock for decades, they can only serve a small fraction of the FGLI population. The percentage increase of student enrollment over time has well exceeded the funding granted to eligible students in existing TRIO programs.

Also, being a contingency-based program, SSS (and TRIO at large) is subject to continuous evaluation by the U.S. Department of Education. Programs and staff unable to meet the department’s qualifications are defunded, leaving professional staff without jobs, the institution without its program and FGLI students without a major support system.

Colleges and universities must have their own internal programs that offer greater flexibility and contextual awareness in order to properly meet the distinct challenges of FGLI students. Individual institutions have the ability to create programs that more nimbly address the current needs of the majority of their specific FGLI students. Institutions that leverage all their resources—federal TRIO and other grants, as well as their own local budgets and personnel—will be able to most effectively serve such students.

No. 3: Train faculty and staff members who interact with FGLI students. Faculty and staff must be specifically prepared to serve FGLI students, as those students need advocates and champions who understand and resonate with their stories. Thus, some colleges and universities are offering pedagogical training for faculty and staff members so they can understand the various and distinct challenges such students face. At the College of William & Mary, faculty or staff mentors for FGLI students must attend a training and orientation session.

No. 4: Develop programs that engage students’ families. When you accept a first-generation student, you also accept their family. Parents and close guardians may (and often do) heavily influence the student’s academic, extracurricular and career preferences, so maintaining a strong level of engagement can help a college proactively mitigate any potential barriers that student may confront. Inform those family members of the challenges and opportunities the student faces and how they can support them. For example, some institutions offer specific programming for FGLI families during orientation or family weekends. Others also send out regular newsletters to families with important information about students’ experiences on the campus.

No. 5: Co-create programs and resources with FGLI students. Perhaps most important, we must include FGLI students in all phases of programs and resources engineered for their benefit, including ideation, implementation and review. Involvement of those students throughout the entire process requires more than conducting interviews or focus groups with them. It means empowering students to provide counsel and be the arbiters of their own progress. They are the experts of their own lives and should be guiding any conversations about various programs and resources. We must first ask FGLI students what they need before we offer them support.

As Kaye Monk-Morgan, assistant vice president of academic affairs at Wichita State University, has put it, “We’re sending students into environments that were not created with them in mind … Not because they’re at a deficit, but because the institution is not nimble enough to effectively give them what they need to be successful.”

Our full report includes additional statistical findings and trends that we discovered among institutions across the United States. We invite you to contact us for a copy so you can review the programs other institutions are putting in place, which can point to what might be possible for your own institution. In order to be better, we must look to those who are doing better.

Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, often says, “We must strive to be both great and good.” Our nation’s FGLI students need and deserve a more just and more equitable education. Now is the time for urgency and action to better support our future first-generation and/or low-income students. Let’s be both great and good.

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