5 best practices for supporting first-generation, low-income students

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, researchers Josh Farris and Chi Chan recently highlighted some of the ways that U.S. colleges and universities are creating effective financial, academic, social, and professional development support systems for first-generation and/or low-income (FGLI) college students. 

While a growing number of campus communities are focusing on the unique needs of FGLI students, many of those efforts are limited in scope or fragmented—with significant attainment consequences. According to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education and the University of Pennsylvania, only 11 percent of students who identify as both first-generation and low-income graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years of beginning college. 

As Kaye Monk-Morgan, assistant vice president of academic affairs at Wichita State University, tells Inside Higher Ed, “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.”

5 hallmarks of effective programs

To better understand the landscape of institutional support systems for FGLI students, Farris and Chan explored the resources available at 1,200 four-year, public and private nonprofit institutions, finding that half had a publicly advertised program. 

They identified four core areas of support—financial, academic, personal and social, and career and professional development—and emerged with five best practices for supporting FGLI students:

  1. Provide financial aid that covers the full range of student needs
  2. Dedicate institutional funds and resources to programs for FGLI students
  3. Ensure faculty and staff are trained to support FGLI students
  4. Create programming that engages students’ families
  5. Include FGLI students when developing programming to support them

Covering the full range of students’ financial needs

Elaborating on the first best practice, the authors urge colleges and universities to “consider the amount of money students need not only to survive but also to thrive.” They say that institutions should look beyond tuition to ensure students can meet their basic needs and participate fully in crucial elements of a college education such as experiential learning and professional development.

The authors call out the emergency aid grants offered through Georgetown University’s Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP) as a “model program” in this category. As part of the university’s commitment to removing financial barriers for students with the greatest need, GSP provides modest grants to students encountering unexpected out-of-pocket expenses such as medical co-pays, emergency travel, mental health and counseling services, essential clothing purchases like winter coats, professional attire for job interviews, and grad school application fees.

Related: ‘It felt like Georgetown was built for us’: First-gen student reflects on his GSP experience >

Best practice programs also help FGLI students ensure that they can afford to pursue the leadership opportunities and internships that will position them for career success. Internships needed for some post-graduate careers are often unpaid and/or located in cities with high housing and transportation costs, creating a “price of entry” for post-graduate recruitment pipelines.

A recent Harvard Business Review column explored factors that tend to exclude first-generation students from organizations’ recruitment pipelines, reporting that first-generation students were 15 percent less likely than other students to receive an offer of a full-time position or internship by December of their senior years.

Engaging families early and often

Farris, a research intern with the Pell Institute, and Chan, a research associate for Storbeck Search, also call on institutions to engage families thoughtfully and provide a window into their students’ daily lives. While the college experience may not be well-understood by families of first-generation students, those family members provide crucial support. 

According to a survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, 26 percent of first generation students disagreed at least somewhat that their university understood the role their families and home communities played in their lives. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Julie Carballo, the director of first-generation initiatives at North Central College in Illinois, outlines several ways that institutions can ensure that parents are valued partners during college.

North Central, for instance, recognizes the importance of establishing a sense of belonging not just among students but for their families, too. The college offers orientation sessions and graduation events tailored to first-generation families, hosts workshops for families of prospective and current students, emphasizes the value of internships and other learning experiences, and ensures that parents understand how much time their student needs to dedicate to schoolwork in order to succeed. North Central also connects the families of first-generation college students with university faculty and staff, broadening students’ network of support.

Including FGLI students in program design

Ultimately, FGLI students “are the experts of their own lives and should be guiding any conversations about various programs and resources,” Farris and Chan write. Strong programs empower students to voice their needs and devise solutions. The Georgetown Scholars Program’s Student Board, for instance, helps connect the program with the greater Georgetown community and ensures it aligns with students’ needs and interests.

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