How do first-gen students experience elite higher education?

At a time when selective institutions are welcoming more students who are the first in their families to attend college, a new book explores how higher education’s so-called “hidden curriculum” shapes those first-generation students’ experiences. 

In The Hidden Curriculum: First Generation Students at Legacy Universities, author Rachel L. Gable draws on years of interviews with 91 first-generation students and 35 “continuing-generation” peers from Georgetown and Harvard universities—institutions that “are steeped in tradition and yet strive for greater inclusivity,” she writes. 

Understanding the first-generation student experience

Gable, currently the director of institutional effectiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University, followed the two cohorts of students from their sophomore to senior years as part of her doctoral dissertation, “Pathways to Thriving.” (Learn more in this 2017 Harvard Magazine article, which recognized Georgetown as having “established the playbook” for supporting students from under-resourced high schools.)

Overall, first-generation and continuing-generation students reported similar levels of satisfaction with their academic and social experiences at college, Gable tells Inside Higher Ed. First-generation students, however, “were more likely to describe college as a roller coaster of terror and exhilaration” and to find themselves caught off guard by the tacit expectations of their campuses. 

Revealing the hidden curriculum

Making those expectations explicit, Gable says, is a crucial step in building inclusive campuses where first-generation students thrive. 

Articulating the hidden curriculum, Gable writes, also “grants universities a powerful opportunity for auto-critique in a new era of expanded opportunity,” opening the door for students to identify hurdles and for university communities to reflect on accepted norms.   

Related: Georgetown launches first-of-its-kind cultural climate survey >

As detailed in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2018 special report on innovation in teaching, Georgetown offers a course called “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum,” which articulates the opportunities and challenges faced by first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students; connects students with resources to support their success; and encourages conversations about power and inequality.

Related: Georgetown course helps first-gen students master ‘the hidden curriculum’ >

Varied, overlapping student experiences

Gable’s new book features a number of student voices recounting pivotal moments in their transition to and time at college. The author says she “was surprised by how varied the first-generation students’ experiences were, and how those experiences were linked to high school context, pre college experiences, parental relationships, choice of major, and other personal factors.” 

Related: How Georgetown is supporting teachers to strengthen the college access pipeline >

While Gable’s research revealed “striking differences” between the college experiences of first-generation students and those of their continuing-generation peers, it also surfaced similarities and reinforced the substantial overlap between first-generation students’ needs and goals, and those of their continuing-generation peers. 

Given those intersections, any efforts to dismantle unnecessary barriers and ensure that first-generation students can fully share their talents will ultimately elevate the college experience for all undergraduates, Gable says.  

Highlighting key inflection points

The Hidden Curriculum also features first-generation students’ recommendations for creating more inclusive college environments. According to Harvard Magazine, the book calls out the transition to college, academic guidance, and social experiences as three core opportunities. 

Gable’s research reinforced the benefits of preorientation programming that gives first-generation students a chance to visit campus, learn about campus expectations, experience college-level learning, and connect with peers. She points to Georgetown’s 52-year-old Community Scholars Program (CSP) as one such immersion opportunity. 

Community Scholars—who come mostly from under resourced schools and are selected for their academic achievements, personal initiative, and service—travel to Georgetown’s campus for a five-week academic experience during the summer before their first year. Scholars take two credit-bearing classes at Georgetown; attend orientation workshops; and interact with professors, advisors, campus partners, and each other in order to form bonds and become acclimated to the university.

Related: How the Community Scholars Program reimagined students’ 2020 summer experience >

First-generation students also are less likely to know about available academic opportunities, such as study abroad and internships, as they progress through college. Gable recommends that institutions proactively educate students about those opportunities and remove financial barriers. 

She highlights how “provid[ing] resources for students seeking internships and off-campus employment” is one of the ways the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP) helps create a more equitable college experience for first-generation and low-income college students. For instance, the book references a GSP event that offered tips on dressing for the workplace and provided students funds to purchase professional attire.

In Gable’s interviews, first-generation students also were more likely to voice concerns about financial barriers to participating in social activities with their peers “and to express complex misgivings around belonging at elite universities.” 

Related: 5 opportunities to build first-gen students’ sense of belonging at Georgetown >

Specifically, students called for more frequent campus discussions about race, gender, ideology, class, and privilege, as well as outreach encouraging first-generation students to take active roles in campus groups. They emphasized that parental engagement is similarly important and suggested that colleges could help parents from diverse backgrounds feel more welcome by offering financial assistance for campus visits; sharing updates in multiple languages; and hosting educational sessions on topics like mental health and extracurricular activities.

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