First-gen student support programs require better data management, institutional coordination, study finds

A new study of higher education programs serving first-generation students finds that although one-third of all college students are first-generation, only 27 percent earn degrees within four years—“markedly lagging behind their continuing generation peers,” according to the Center for First-generation Student Success. The report recommends a number of tactics to close the achievement gap, including collecting data and using it to improve support for first-gen students, taking an institution-wide approach that identifies and addresses potential gaps, and shifting emphasis from student readiness to institutional readiness.

The report drew in its first phase on qualitative interviews with faculty members, administrators and leaders from 45 four-year institutions; leaders from 12 nonprofits focused on student success; and 40 first-generation students at eight four-year institutions, Inside Higher Ed reports. The report’s second phase surveyed faculty and administrators at 273 four-year institutions. Future research will include two-year institutions, a major missing piece since many two-year schools have a lower barrier to entry, lower cost, and majority first-gen population.

Missed opportunities in data collection and tracking

Although the number of first-gen support programs is increasing, many are not using data on first-generation students to serve them effectively. 80 percent of surveyed institutions “now identify first-generation status at the point of admission,” but “only 61 percent track outcomes for those students,” Inside Higher Ed reports. Four in 10 colleges “use data to inform programs that support this group,” and three in 10 colleges “store information on first-generation students in such a way that faculty can access and use,” reports Education Dive.

Avoiding gaps and taking a whole-student approach to support

The study authors note that “housing resources and programs geared toward first-generation students within different offices makes them challenging for students to navigate and staff to identify.” They also note that some institutions lack a common vision for first-generation student success and don’t effectively integrate faculty into their support programs.

Building a comprehensive support community—comprising students, family, alumni, faculty, university leaders, and staff—ensures that students have advocates and access to resources. And having an institutional vision and objectives to coalesce around increases the effectiveness of these resources, the authors suggest.

Taking the ‘readiness’ burden off of students

“Readiness” for college has traditionally focused on student preparation, but “college leadership should reflect on and change policies and procedures that might inhibit student success,” Inside Higher Ed notes. For example, terms like “add-drop” or “office hours” aren’t necessarily intuitive; institutions should consider its lingo through that lens and consider introducing different terms.

Similarly, first-generation students shouldn’t feel penalized for having family and financial responsibilities; having a job or needing to spend time at home must not be viewed as the student’s being disengaged. Instead, the “perspectives and experiences of first-generation students should be an asset, not a shortcoming.”

How Georgetown helps first-generation and low-income students thrive

Georgetown University is committed to ensuring that all students have the resources and support they need to succeed. The Georgetown Scholarship Program—which boasts a 96 percent graduation rate—provides programmatic support to more than 650 undergraduates, and the 50-year-old Community Scholars Program prepares its multicultural cohort of first-generation college students for success with a five-week academic summer program and ongoing support. The Regents Science Scholars Program further expands opportunities for students from traditionally underserved communities pursuing studies in the sciences. Learn more about Georgetown’s commitment to access and affordability.

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