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First-generation students face barriers continuing-generation students do not. Consequently, their college experience is more challenging as they navigate a new, unfamiliar environment for the first time. According to the Education Advisory Board (EAB), 33% of first-generation students leave college within three years of starting. While there are many contributing factors, the main reasons first-generation students leave are 1) financial burdens, 2) lack of support, and 3) inequitable access to resources.

Financial Burdens

Studies show that first-generation students are likely to have a lower-income family background. Many have taken out large student loans to pay for school and have a job throughout their college career. If they drop out, they end up with the added financial burden, saddled with heavy debt and no benefit. Low-income, first-generation students have a greater risk when it comes to failure. It’s every institution’s responsibility to make sure first-generation students have what they need to succeed academically, complete their degree, and realize a successful future.

Lack of Support

First-generation students don’t usually have a parent or family member to help them navigate the college system. This puts them at a disadvantage before they even begin applying, which is an increasingly involved and competitive process in and of itself. And not everyone has a great high school guidance counselor who can help. First-generation students are left on their own to research schools and fields of study, fill out applications, apply for financial aid, secure housing, and register for classes. When they are uncertain about a step in the process, they are more likely to put it off because they don’t know who or how to ask. With strict deadlines, this puts them under a lot of pressure.

When they get to campus, it’s unfamiliar territory. At orientation they receive a lot of information designed to guide them through their first semester, but communication is filled with jargon and acronyms and email addresses and URLs for all the different student services. It’s information overload, especially for individuals with no previous experience to fall back on.

When school starts, it’s still unclear who to contact when they need help. What’s the bursar’s office? When should I start planning for next semester? Where can I find tutoring help? The majority of student questions arise in the moment and can only be anticipated to a certain extent. In 2018, Eastern Kentucky University was answering around 2,000 first-generation student questions per day. So instead of focusing on providing heaps of information up front, perhaps institutions should focus on the best way to answer student questions in the moment. Nothing replaces personalized, one-on-one support from faculty who can provide individualized responses to meet every student’s unique needs.

Inequitable Access to Resources

The Center for First-generation Student Success performed a study that revealed only 28% of colleges hold data on first-generation students. If an institution doesn’t have insight on the first-generation student population, how can they properly engage and support these students? How can they transform the old, decentralized structures that benefit second and third-generation students, but not first?

Historically, colleges and universities have been structured in such a way that puts continuing-generation students at an advantage when it comes to accessing resources. These individuals have been previously exposed to the college system and jargon while first-generation students don’t have a frame of reference.

  • First-generation students don’t always know where to find help. Colleges and universities typically have a vast collection of resources that first-generation students could use (tutoring, health care and counseling, peer mentoring, on-campus childcare, library services, etc.). The problem is that many students are not aware of the resources their school offers.
  • Approaching faculty and staff can be intimidating. Some think professors don’t want to be disturbed during office hours. The idea of making an appointment to talk to someone with “PhD” or “Dean” in their title can be scary, but students are more likely to reach out for help if they can access resources in a non-threatening manner and they know faculty members truly care about their success.
  • Student services are typically scattered throughout the campus. There’s one building for advising, another for financial aid, another for career counseling… and an in-person appointment is almost always required for each. Services are decentralized and students have to dig around to find the right person to email or the right paperwork to fill out. The more students have to search, the more likely they will give up.
  • First-generation students don’t always know how to connect with other students or get involved on campus. It can be intimidating, overwhelming, and difficult to make time for when balancing work and school. Institutions should help connect individuals with other first-generation students or campus organizations that will help them grow and gain a sense of belonging. Connectedness is a crucial need that’s often overlooked.

First-generation drop-out rates cannot be ignored. Institutions have a lot to lose if they aren’t taking steps to better engage first-generation students and their families. If drop-out rates aren’t decreasing with current efforts, it’s time to find a new solution—that’s faculty and staff’s responsibility.

Faculty and staff grow accustomed to institutional processes and hierarchies and get comfortable with the status quo, especially when there’s little change in day-to-day routines. They don’t always notice when students fall behind or struggle. They’re simply caught up in the day-to-day doing their job—advisors are taking appointments, careers counselors are reviewing resumes, professors are reading term papers, and they’re all waiting for students to come to them. But what about the first-generation students who are running from class to work in the afternoon but don’t know where to get help quickly?

It might be time to take a wide look at current institutional processes and hierarchies and figure out where first-generation students are getting lost. Maybe it’s time to change the long-established structures, simplify the support process, and build a space where first-generation students can succeed.



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