How Colleges Can Best Support First-Gen Students

Oct 23, 2019

There’s a group that is growing in higher education, and it didn’t even used to think of itself as a group.

Even just a few years ago, most first-generation students—the first in their family to enter higher education—didn’t think of themselves that way, and colleges didn’t treat them any differently. But there’s a growing awareness that this is a set of students that can benefit greatly from some additional supports. Many don’t have the network of family members they can turn to help them navigate college, which has its own language and culture that isn’t always clear to outsiders.

This week on the latest installment of EdSurge Live, our monthly online discussion forum, we talked about the increasing efforts that colleges are making to help first-generation students, and whether there’s more that can or should be done.

To help us with those questions we were joined by two national experts:

  • La’Tonya Rease Miles, director of First Year Experience at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-founder of a Facebook group called Empowering First-Generation College Students.
  • Jim McCorkell, CEO and founder of College Possible, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged students get into college and complete their studies.

Listen to the conversation below, or read a transcript of highlights, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What are some things about a first-generation student that’s different from other students, and what are some things colleges are starting to do to support them?

La’Tonya Rease Miles: They call it first generation, but it can be a misnomer because we’re not necessarily talking literally the first. You could have an older sibling [who went to college] or whatnot. But the whole point is that these students may not have parents who have college-going knowledge specific to the U.S.Even here at UCLA, our definition is perhaps considered broad because we will say even if your parent received a degree, let’s say from the Philippines, they probably have very little knowledge about how to navigate this system. It just means those students may be disadvantaged in terms of knowing the hidden curriculum of college.

La’Tonya Rease Miles, director of First Year Experience at the University of California at Los Angeles.

It’s really important when people are doing work with first-gen students that they understand who their students are. It doesn’t matter what’s happening at UCLA if you’re at a different type of institution. So a student, a first-gen student at a two-year university is going to have a very different one than a four-year private Jesuit or a research public [institution].

At Loyola Marymount University, for example, it’s known for its study-abroad opportunities and for alternative-break opportunities. But then the gaps we saw was where first-gen students weren’t participating. So that was unique to that particular campus. And what we ended up doing was creating opportunities for study abroad and alternative breaks with first gen students and first gen faculty and staff. [Because] a first-gen student may or may not get that information and may be less likely to ask for support. Or they may be feeling guilty about studying abroad because if you’re the first person in your family to go to college, it’s going to be really hard for you to tell your mom and dad, “Hey, can I go study abroad and Europe?”

Whereas here at UCLA we had different concerns. We focus more on explaining what a research institution is to the student and the parents and families. If you’re in the humanities or you’re in art or you’re a dance major at UCLA, you’re going to have an especially hard time explaining to your parents why you came to a school like this and want to get an art degree or a dance degree. And so then we have tailored conversations for those students.

Jim, your group is helping on the admissions side of getting into college. What do you think colleges can do to assist first-gen students and what are some things that can be done during the admissions process?

Jim McCorkell: It’s interesting because the field used to be called college access, but we started to evolve as far as talking about the language of both access and success, meaning success when you get to college. And I think one of the really interesting things is the difference in where low-income students enroll in college and where middle-class and upper income students [go]. The first big difference is you see wealthier students going to four-year schools, much more than two-year schools and furthermore going to more selective and private schools. And as you move through that range from community college to four-year to private four-year to more selective four-year, you start to see the graduation rates go up, and they go up for everybody.

What’s interesting is, especially at the more selective institutions, you’ll see low-income students do just as well as non low-income students. So one of the things that researchers and practitioners have been talking a lot about over the last decade or so is about academic fit. So very often you see students from low-income families where they have people in their life telling them either that they’re not college material, or they shouldn’t even go to college.

Jim McCorkell, CEO and founder of College Possible

Sometimes, what low-income students hear is that phrase, the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” where there aren’t enough people encouraging them to go to college at all. And then when they do go, very often they’re told that the best thing for them would be their local community college. And maybe that’s right. But very often students undermatch. They’re going to not as good a school as they could have gotten into, or as good of a school as they were prepared for. So we like to see for example, more low-income kids go to places like UCLA, which has a very high graduation rate.

Our organization is called College Possible. We pair our students with a recent college graduate who serves as a coach, both to help them in the high school years to get prepared for college and to decide where to go to college. Then when they get into college, we also give them a coach to support them so they can navigate the obstacles they face. And a big part of that is helping students begin to better understand the differences between two-year, four-year, public, private, some of those major categories because they have a really big implication on your likelihood of graduating. And that’s really the name of the game.

The real challenge is in all of those students who start college but don’t complete their degree and now they have some debt. They have tried something and failed. They have people in their life who’ve said, “I told you you couldn’t make it.” So they kind of have a broken spirit and they feel like they’ve lost their mojo and so they don’t have any new earning potential. They have this debt.

That’s the real opportunity in our country: to really work hard on some new and innovative ways for colleges and universities to help students from low-income families to navigate some of the obstacles that they face when they’re in college and make sure that they persist and graduate.

Audience question: I’m Beth Seltzer, an educational technology specialist at Stanford. I work a lot with our first-year programs. What are some favorite practices that faculty can use in the classroom to make it a more inclusive space for first-generation students?

Rease Miles: I want to acknowledge the work from University of California at Davis, which has put up a whole list of resources. They’ve broken them down into four different categories, and then within each different specific ways that faculty can support first-generation students.

But I want to share with you one of my favorites that was an idea that a student told me. It was a graduate student and we were addressing these issues with respect to family and students really feeling torn between making progress but not wanting to leave their home culture behind.

This student recommended for professors to have students submit an acknowledgements page with their writing. It’s not something that you need to read or grade, but it would go a long way in terms of helping a student begin to reconcile how they’re feeling about going to college. They can do it in whatever language that they want to, but just have the students say: “This is who I want to thank for me being here,” and that just gives me goosebumps thinking about it. Again, it’s not something that you grade, it’s not meant to be an evaluation, but you are really helping that student work out some concerns they may be having.

McCorkell: I really like that, and I think a lot of what we’re talking about intersects. It’s not just low income, but it intersects very forcefully with race as well. And so I think the practices that we’re seeing people engage in much more of these days on diversity, equity and inclusion, trying really hard to create inclusive spaces for all people regardless of what background they come from, like looking at race, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, all of those things.

I think I put a lot of pressure on professors. My wife is a professor and teaches and researches. And so I think there is a lot of pressure on faculty to say, “How can we better serve these students?” I think one of them is to pay a little extra attention to them and to recognize that not every student you have is coming from a middle-class family with two parents who speak English, who went to college and who are paying the bills. Many students, especially at medium and large public institutions, that’s not necessarily their circumstances.

The final thing I’ll say is most campuses have pretty robust systems designed to try to help students succeed. A lot of that can center on tutoring. If you see a student, for example, struggling with their writing abilities, almost every campus has a tutoring center where there are free tutors available and you might have to take that little extra step to say to that student, “You could benefit from a tutor and it won’t diminish you in my eyes as the teacher, in fact, I really welcome it.” In fact, most professors really do appreciate it because it makes the writing better, easier to grade and deal with. Finding a friendly, constructive way to help link students to some of the support services that exist on your campus, that’d be probably my primary advice to a faculty member.

This is an excerpt of the full discussion, which also explores what is the “hidden curriculum” of college that many first-generation students don’t know. You can listen to the entire conversation here.


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