Higher Ed Success Matters

5 Ways to Improve First-Generation Student Success

October 2018

Why are first generation students twice as likely to leave college without earning a degree? According to studies, one key factor is that students need more information about financing a college degree. First-generation students make up a significant segment of the college population--34% of students at 4-year institutions and 53% of students at 2-year institutions. In addressing their needs, an institution...can sharply increase student success and retention. What are these students' other most critical needs? Research indicates that 5 key factors impact first-generation students' decisions to stay in college and earn a degree.

  1. Engaging in conversations on how socio-economic background impacts the college student experience

  2. Making a trusted connection on campus

  3. Engaging in conversations that normalize attending and completing college

  4. Assistance getting financial aid and an on-campus job

  5. Help accessing campus support services

First-generation students are more likely than traditional students to make financial decisions that increase their risk of leaving college early. For example, they are more likely to turn down student loans and work full-time, off-campus jobs which increases the odds they will not persist to degree.

We tend to avoid conversations with incoming first-year students about many of the above topics, including how differences in students' backgrounds can affect a student's experience on campus. Yet, a recent study found that discussing this topic in a structured way with first-year students positively impacts first-generation student retention (Stephens, et al. 2014). In this study, one college utilized stories from first-generation college seniors to discuss the different challenges students might face on campus. The conversations then turned to various ways these first-generation students overcame their challenges. Simply having these conversations at the beginning of a students' college experience improved first-generation students' academic success. Moreover, the study found that all students who participated in the talks--not just first-generation students--experienced higher levels of mental health and engagement.  In being part of small-group conversations or a student panel activity, first-generation students may also find a trusted campus connections or learn more about financial aid, on-campus jobs and student support services. By reaching out to incoming students in a few key areas and engaging in genuine conversations, colleges can make an enormous difference in helping first-generation students succeed.

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