After examining programs implemented in colleges nationwide, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) has put together a blueprint for best serving first-generation college students.
As part of a study funded by the IHEP Walmart Minority Student Success Initiative, 30 minority-serving institutions (MSIs) – which include Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) – were granted $100,000 each to implement strategies specifically geared toward improving the success of first-generation college students.
First-generation college students are more likely to enroll in MSIs than in any other type of institution—about 42% of students enrolled at MSIs are first-generation, compared to 33% at predominantly white institutions. MSIs make up more than one-third of all degree-granting institutions in the U.S.
The study compiled a portrait of first-generation students. They are typically from lower-income families; from under-resourced high schools, and unlikely to have help filling out college applications and filing for financial aid; more likely to attend a school close to home; less likely to live on campus and engage with faculty members; lack understanding of available college resources; and likely to work more than 40 hours per week while attending a public or for-profit school. All of these characteristics lead to one major one: first-generation students are far less likely to earn a four-year degree in six years than their non-first-generation peers, and are far more likely to drop out of school altogether.
The study found that schools can do four key things to improve success rates for such students: hire faculty to bridge departmental divides and serve as resources; create more dynamic classrooms and curricula to engage students; use evidence-based approaches to measuring student success; and partner with community and other allies, such as businesses.
While many colleges offer general support such as financial aid literacy seminars, orientations, and summer programs, the study concluded that for many students, these are not enough. The IHEP recommends that colleges be much more hands-on in actively trying to help first-generation students succeed, and cites examples of successful schools who received the $100,000 grant and have seen results already.
Navajo Technical College, a TCU, used its grant to create and implement undergraduate research opportunities that expressly benefited the Navajo community. Some students have received recognition for their work, and the deeper relationships they have been required to form have led to greater engagement and retention.
The University of The District of Columbia, a HBCU, created a learning community designed for student retention that requires completion of a capstone project. So far, the school has seen high retention rates for students in the program.
Claflin University, a HBCU, launched a program specifically for first-generation students that links two core courses to freshman orientation, which has provided the opportunity for students to discuss with other students and leaders the many similar challenges they face. Since the learning community program began, 100% of students completed orientation, 90% completed English and math successfully, and 17% earned above a 3.0 GPA.
Jim Applegate, vice president of program development for Lumina Foundation, which is focused on boosting college completion rates, said improving participation and graduation rates for first-generation students, along with low-income students and adult learners, is key to boosting the overall national graduation rate. The rate currently sits at 39.3%–a rate President Barack Obama said he would like to see boosted to 60% before 2020.