9 ways colleges can expand supportive services for first-gen students

A June 2022 Student Voice survey of 1,073 first-generation college students from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse sheds light on students’ awareness of available wraparound supports and which they consider especially crucial.

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

Asked 20 questions about the resources their college provides, most respondents said they knew where to find support if they needed it. Thirty-eight percent of respondents strongly agreed they know where to seek help on campus, and 44% somewhat agreed. The survey also found that 25% of respondents strongly agreed that their colleges help first-gen students navigate college life, while 36% somewhat agreed.

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

Survey participants were asked which supports they would like to see their college prioritize, selecting from a list of 14 options. The top choice at 31% was for colleges to offer financial aid help geared specifically toward first-gen students. The second most popular choice at 20% was for colleges to offer first-gen-specific orientation programs.

Nine ways to help first-gen students thrive

Based on the survey results, Inside Higher Ed‘s Melissa Ezarik suggests nine actions colleges and universities could take to ensure first-generation students flourish in their campus communities: 

  1. Engage first-gen parents/guardians. Colleges should organize parent orientation programs and year-round opportunities for first-gen families to ask questions about their child’s college experience, as students’ persistence depends on support they get at home. “I don’t want to sound clichéd, but it really does take a village to get students through a first semester and subsequently a first year,” says Linda LeMura, president of Le Moyne College in New York. 
  2. Offer pre-orientation programs. Twenty percent of Student Voice respondents said colleges should have orientation programs specifically for first-gen students so they know what academic, career, and wellness services their school offers. Schools can also use these events to pair first-gen students with first-gen faculty or staff mentors. 
  3. Ease stigmas around mental health struggles. Colleges should communicate with first-gen students and families about stressors that come with the college experience and discuss available mental health services first-gen students can access if they need support.
  4. Gear financial aid service toward first-gen students. Respondents say colleges should demystify financial aid processes for first-gen students and their families, and host speakers and advocates who can specifically address those students’ needs.
  5. Assign academic advisors specifically for first-gen students. Advisors should recognize the unique needs of the first-gen students they guide, specifically the challenges associated with the hidden curriculum
  6. Explain the value of a liberal arts curriculum to first-gen students and families. First-gen students should be encouraged to take courses that not only offer a solid foundation for quantitative skills but also allow them to connect to other academic fields.
  7. Communicate challenges of choosing a career. First-gen students may feel pressured from family to select a major that leads to familiar career options. However, Jane De León Griffin, Bentley University’s new associate provost for student success, says her university is “trying to get students to think about designing their life and have their job be one piece of that, rather than the sole be-all goal in and of itself.”
  8. Match first-gen students with alumni and faculty mentors. Mentors can help universities build a sense of belonging by offering both career advice and emotional support to first-gen students as they navigate day-to-day college life.
  9. Evaluate effectiveness of existing first-gen programs. Colleges need to reach out to their first-gen students for feedback on the benefits or shortcomings of programs they offer and invest in scaling up those programs to increase student success.
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