Understanding the Unique Needs of First Generation Students
Recruiting and retaining first-generation students has been a focus of many colleges and universities for several years. Unfortunately, while the desire to serve these prospective students certainly exists, the reality is that many schools have struggled to impactfully improve enrollments and persistence. These students represent an opportunity to bring more diverse voices into an institution and expand opportunity for new students, while also growing enrollments.
While much has been written and discussed about first-generation students in general, other, non-traditional, first generation students are often overlooked and lumped together with other post-traditional students. The reality is that these students face some of the challenges that traditional first-generation students do, and also share some of same challenges with other working adult students. To recruit these students, and help them persist, institutions will first need to understand the unique constellation of factors that influence first-generation, post-traditional students.
What is a first-generation post-traditional student?
Any conversation about first-generation students has the potential to be muddied by an inconsistent definition. Some organizations use the number of students whose parents have never enrolled in college, while others use the number who have parents without a bachelor’s degree. Whichever definition you use, first-generation college students don’t have the example of a parent who has graduated from college. Therefore, these students may need extra guidance to enroll and persist. According to the Online College Students Report 2019: 29% of undergraduates and 32% of graduate students were the first in their family to attend college.
Meanwhile, any discussion of post-traditional students naturally includes first-generation college students. Like their post-traditional peers, first-generation students tend to be older and have dependents. They are more likely to enroll online or at two-year colleges.
These students come from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds with 44.5% identifying as black, Hispanic, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, or Alaskan Natives.
Enrolling first-generation students
To Enroll first-generation students, these are three valuable steps that benefit both students and institutions:
1. Identify them early – Meeting the unique needs of first-generation college students starts with knowing who those students are. Try to find out as early as possible if a student is first-generation so you can provide extra information and support from the very beginning.
Keep in mind that some students may not be aware that they are first-generation. The confusion of definitions mentioned above has led some students to miss out on valuable support. Instead of asking, are you first-generation? Ask, did your mother and father enroll in college? Did they graduate? These more specific questions can help you better understand the student’s needs.
2. Offer a clear value proposition – First-generation students are just as goal-focused as any post-traditional student, although their goals may take on a different significance. While most post-traditional students enroll for career-related reasons, first-generation students often have additional goals in mind such as helping their families or communities.
Meanwhile, some first-generation students may face opposition from parents or other family members who view their desire to enroll as a break with tradition or rejection of cultural values, rather than as an opportunity to improve career opportunities. This is certainly not true in all cases, but when it happens, it can create a stumbling block for some students. The challenge for institutions is to recognize the unique psychological needs of first-generation students.
3. Provide support – A student with many close family members who have graduated from college has a wealth of cultural insight to draw from. Their parents can help them understand application requirements, navigate financial aid, and compare different colleges. First-generation students don’t have this cultural knowledge on which to draw.
Institutions can fill that knowledge gap by offering clear and consistent guidance throughout the recruitment and enrollment process. Multiple communication touch points including phone calls, emails, and text and social media messaging, can help students feel guided throughout the process.
Retaining first-generation students
First-generation students require additional support throughout their enrollment. First-generation students tend to have lower persistence rates than students with at least one parent who has graduated from college. This could be a result of a lack of family support, higher levels of responsibility, lack of awareness of resources, or other factors.
To retain these students, institutions should start by making financial aid services available and then guiding students through the financial aid process. About 65% of first-generation students use financial aid services compared to 49% of multi-generation students. Yet students of all backgrounds and experience levels say that navigating financial aid is a major challenge.
Similarly, institutions must make first-generation students aware of all support services. Theoretically, students without a strong family tradition of collegiate attendance would benefit most from academic, advising, and career services. Yet, research shows that they use them at lower rates than multi-generation students do.
About 55% of first-generation students used Academic advising compared to 72% of multi-generation students. They are also less likely to use academic support services, despite taking less academically rigorous courses in high school. Finally, first-generation students are slightly less likely to use career services.
Why? Possibly because first-generation students don’t realize these resources are available to them. Without parents or close family members who have attended college, these students may not have the cultural knowledge to understand that help is available and that it is okay to ask for support. So institutions must offer support services upfront and continue offering them throughout the student’s enrollment.
Why recruit first-generation, post-traditional students
Recruiting first-generation students does not require a major overhaul of your enrollment process. Institutions only need to identify these students early and give them adequate support. This up-front investment in student success could return big rewards over time.
First-generation and post-traditional students have a desire for higher education opportunities and it can have a significant impact on their lives. Whether they are helping to provide for their families or seeking a new career path, institutions that offer assistance to these students will help pave a pathway for success.
If you are in need of expert student success advisors that focus on first-generation and post-traditional students, EducationDynamics can help. Our team of trained experts will help guide potential students through the enrollment process.