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On November 8, higher education institutions across the country will celebrate first-generation college students. The date coincides with the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 to enhance the educational resources of colleges and universities and to provide financial support to students in post-secondary and higher education.
However, many first-generation college students still struggle financially and academically compared to their peers. In fact, nearly 90% of low-income first-generation students don’t graduate within six years. Approximately 21% of Generation Z students are first-generation college students.
Faculty, staff, and parents can play a major role in helping first-generation college students thrive.
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Here are seven ways to position first-generation college students for success.
Talk about financial support. Many first-generation students do not know the financial resources available to them. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that only 65% of high school seniors complete the FAFSA each year, and first-generation and low-income students are unlikely to apply for this assistance. Many of these students will end up working more than 20 hours a week to fund their education. However, many low-income students can get up to $6,495 in Pell Grants (free money they don’t have to repay). This can greatly help in lowering the cost of college as well as other scholarships available.
Help them succeed in the first two years. One study found that a third of first-generation college students are likely to leave college within three years, often in their first and second years. Colleges can set up programs or classes for first-year students to keep them engaged. At Southeastern, we have a class called SEU 101 for first-year students. We also have a full program dedicated to these students called the First Year Experience, which hosts events, mentorship groups, and family dinners to get the new students acclimatized. These types of programs are essential for connecting first generation students with their peers.
On November 8th, let’s celebrate every first generation student on our campus and provide them with ways to continue to thrive in their environments.
Provide mentorship opportunities. First-generation college students are less likely to get the support they need to achieve their degrees than their peers. Since their parents did not go to college, it is important that they find mentors who can support them along the way. These mentors can be faculty, staff, or alumni of the university. The benefit we get at Southeastern University is a lower faculty-student ratio. This allows faculty members to get to know students on a personal level, and can be critical in helping students succeed. Simple gestures, such as checking in with students, can help them feel valued and stay focused on their studies.
Facilitate peer groups. Peer groups can help students feel more involved. When they get to know the students in their classes and feel a sense of belonging, it can help increase their retention. Student groups can also encourage students academically, provide more networking opportunities and help students talk to each other about challenges they may face. Many students may find it easier to approach a student in their class than to connect with a faculty member or staff member. At Southeastern we offer mentorship groups where we will pair a group of first-year students with a senior. Students who have been at the university for longer can help new students adjust to our campus culture and can be a great support for these students in their academic journey.
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Emphasize the importance of internships. Surveys conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers revealed that graduates with internships were 90% more likely to receive job offers than graduates who did not. The challenge is that most first-generation college students have to work to help cover their college expenses. Spending time training can reduce the number of hours they can work. However, universities can help students find paid internships. The more connections a student can make before graduation, the better prepared they will be for success after graduation.
Make them familiar with the career services center on campus. Research at Florida State University found that first-generation students were less familiar with the requirements of their job search and had less access to networks than other students. One area the students were not familiar with was how to write a resume. The college career services office often holds mock interviews for students to learn how to conduct interviews well and offers workshops to help students develop their resumes. Our Southeastern center hosts an annual job week and other fairs where companies are invited to campus to interview students for job openings.
Let them know about study abroad opportunities. The Institute of International Education reported that half of the people who studied abroad said it helped them get a job or promotion. Many first-generation students often earn less than their peers when they graduate and enter the workforce. Study abroad opportunities can help increase a student’s worldview. It can teach them about other cultures, and they can learn a new language. It also opens their eyes to job opportunities around the world. The more prepared the student is to succeed, the better. They can also build relationships with people abroad that could one day help them.
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One of the most important things parents and colleges can do for first-generation students is to celebrate their incredible achievements. Whether it’s a freshman or a graduating student, we have to start recognizing the amazing journey these students have taken to be the first person in their family to attend or graduate from college.
Many of these students face challenges such as juggling careers and academics and navigating unfamiliar territory. On November 8th, let’s celebrate every first generation student on our campus and provide them with ways to continue to thrive in their environments.
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