How can colleges appeal to first-gen students? Survey offers suggestions.

Survey results from Niche, a company that helps students connect with colleges and schools, and vice versa, offer a window into the preferences of first-generation students, insights that may help shape colleges’ recruitment efforts.

Of the 30,353 students who responded to Niche’s 2021 senior survey and Class of 2022 survey, 10,969 said their parents had not graduated from a two- or four-year college program. Most respondents from low-income households also identified as first-generation; only 5 percent of respondents from the highest income households identified as first-generation students.

Price-sensitive in their college pursuits

Pricing emerged as an especially crucial factor in first-generation students’ college decisions, compared with respondents overall. Half of first-generation students said application fees were burdensome, and 76 percent said they had eliminated colleges from consideration because of the sticker price. Less than half would consider pursuing a college with a yearly sticker price of over $30,000.

“While only 8 percent of their peers said they would only consider colleges with a total published cost of less than $10,000 per year, for first-generation students, it increased significantly to 18 percent,” Niche writes.

Will Patch, senior enrollment insights leader at Niche, told Inside Higher Ed that colleges have a challenge when it comes to educating first-generation college students about the prevalence of discounting—and the availability of financial aid to greatly shrink their actual out-of-pocket cost. He suggested that, ultimately, higher education should aim to make the sticker price closer to the net price.

Related: Who benefits when colleges cut their sticker prices? >

Proactive outreach is similarly crucial, Niche found. Compared with the overall respondent pool, first-generation students indicated “they are much more open to outreach.” An email was “the most desired,” with 97 percent of first-generation college students saying they wanted to hear from colleges via email.

In addition, first-generation college students were more likely to seek out and be influenced by in-person interactions, such as visits from college admissions representatives and discussions with their own school counselors, than peers when looking into colleges.

However, first-generation students were less likely to have had in-person interactions on college campuses than their peers. Just 66 percent of first-generation students in the class of 2021 had visited a college campus, compared with 76 percent of their peers.

Related: Virtual college tours could offer benefits that outlast pandemic >

Diversity was another big draw for first-generation college students researching schools. The Niche report notes that it’s important to “show and not just tell when it comes to diversity,” adding that “user-generated content and stories” can ensure prospective students see other people of similar backgrounds thriving on campus.

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