March 25, 2020

Five Ways to Better Support First-Generation Students

Advising Leaders

By Elliot Felix

There are lots of ways to understand the experience of first-generation students – students whose parents either did not attend college or graduate college1 and so may have missed the “hidden curriculum” of policies, procedures, and processes which can make navigating, belonging, and succeeding a challenge.

One way is hearing from first-gen students in their own words, like this quote from Brenda in Students for Education Reform’s 2017 First-Gen Survey: “College is difficult but the courses are not the most difficult part about being a first-generation college student of color…. Balancing work, school, internships, and a social life is the most difficult.” Or Northeastern student and journalist Zipporah Osei’s excellent FIRST GEN newsletter where she talks about “the messiness of the experience in an open and honest way.”

A second way is to look at the national statistics; for instance, according to NASPA and the National Center for Education Statistics, compared to continuing generation students, first-generation student’s six-year graduation rate is 2.5x lower, their median parental income is 45% lower, their median hours of employment are 1.6x higher, and they are 24% less likely to use academic advising and are 23% less likely to academic support services.

A third way is brightspot’s Student Experience Snapshot. It’s an online survey that provides a complementary way to understand the first-gen student experience holistically and with enough detail to inform institutions on how to improve.

In this post, we’ll provide an overview of key resources as well as five things institutions can do to improve the student journey based findings from our Snapshot data.

Understanding the First-Generation Student Journey

A great place to start is The Center for First Generation Success – an initiative of NASPA and the Suder Foundation – which includes a variety of reports, case studies, programs, and other resources. Their 2018 report, “First-generation Student Success: A Landscape Analysis of Programs and Services at Four-year Institutions” provides a great set of big-picture recommendations for institutions:

  • An institutional focus on first-generation students is needed rather than just individual programs
  • Institutions then need to shift their mindset to become “student-ready” instead of bemoaning students who aren’t “college-ready” and they must also avoid the fundamental attribution error when it comes to first-gen students
  • Organize networks and cohorts to engage first-generation students, build community, enable a sense of belonging, and facilitate mentoring
  • Make student services more visible and proactive, particularly considering that first-gen students may have less awareness or need greater orientation
  • Consider the intersectional identities of first-gen students, who may also be veterans, students of color, have a disability, be parents, and so many other characteristics
NASPA’s Findings on the Use of Student Services among Freshman
First-generation College Students

Using Insights on Your Campus

Data from a recent national survey of students enrolled at four-year institutions using brightspot’s Student Experience Snapshot (n = 550) provide useful insights on how to build on this big picture with more detail. The Snapshot is a short online survey that students complete in four to five minutes to rate their experience with academic programs, community, culture, facilities, student services, and technology along a five-point Likert scale as well as indicate two outcome measures along a ten-point Likert scale: their sense of personal growth and their likelihood to recommend their institution, also called the Net Promoter Score (NPS). By focusing on belonging, service navigation, student projects, technology, and facilities, institutions can improve the first-gen experience and outcomes like persistence and completion.

Findings from brightspot’s Student Experience Snapshot

Five Strategies to Improve the Student Journey

1. Build Community and Belonging
In our Snapshot, first-generation students rated their experience significantly less positively than their continuing generation peers when it comes to “belonging to a group I identify with” (3.60 vs. 3.85, out of 5) and “having a place that feels my own” (3.55 vs. 3.80, out of 5). Creating cohorts and networks are great ways to build belonging and community; for instance, Duke University’s LIFE (Low Income First-Generation Engagement) Student Group’s purpose is “to create and provide community space, resources, and advocacy for students on Duke’s campus who identify as first-generation and/or low-income.” Likewise, UT Austin’s orientation program for first-generation students and their families contributed to building community early on. The orientation and related initiatives helped increase the first-gen graduation rate from 41% in 2012 to 62% in 2018.

First-Generation Longhorns, UT Austin

2. Increase Service Awareness and Simplify Navigation
A common refrain we hear among academic and administrative service providers we work with is that students are often not aware of the services created specifically to help them. Likewise, we hear from first-gen students about their difficulties navigating these services. In our Snapshot, compared to the overall average, first-generation students have the most positive experience with “library spaces” (4.3 vs. mean of 4.18, out of 5), but they have the lowest rating in “finding information and conducting research” (3.69 vs. mean of 3.79, out of 5). Creating one-stop-shop’s for student services, leveraging peer to peer service delivery models, and doing the outreach to meet students where they are can all help. This is particularly important given the NCES stats we mentioned that freshman first-gen students are less likely to use academic support services like tutoring or advising.

Promoting services at University of Miami

3. Support Student Projects
Learning is shifting to more actively engage students by working on real-world projects in teams. Learning is also blending with research as students join faculty research teams. These projects are where students find their passion, purpose, and career paths – and build the skills they’ll need in the future. A large body of research has proven their effectiveness: capstone projects and service learning projects are among the top six “high-impact practices” designated by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and students who worked on semester long projects are 1.7x more likely to be engaged in the workplace later according the Gallup-Purdue Index. Unfortunately, of any demographic group, first-gen students rated “working on long term projects” the lowest in our Snapshot. Institutions can improve support for these projects by creating creative hubs with right spaces and support services, such as NYU’s LaGuardia Co-op and University of Rochester’s iZone.

University of Rochester’s iZone supports student projects for economic, cultural, and social impact

4. Keep Leveraging Technology
The EDUCAUSE 2019 Study of Undergraduates and Information Technology provides useful context on the technology landscape. From this and other research, we know that technology plays a key role in the student experience – registering for classes, accessing course content, watching videos, completing creative projects, submitting assignments, and just plain paying your bill. In our Snapshot, several aspects of technology were highlights for first-generation students. First-generation students showed statistically significant differences in their experience with student services portals (4.40 vs. mean of 4.25, out of 5) and using technology hardware like laptops, desktops, and printers (4.25 vs. mean of 4.00, out of 5). While not statistically significant, first-gen students also rated tech support, exposure to emerging technologies, and access to software among the highest of any demographic. Institutions should build on this success and use technology to help in other areas, such as better supporting creative projects.

Redesigned myPSU student portal at Portland State University

5. Selectively Improve Facilities
Campus facilities have a big impact on student recruitment and retention. In fact, in our Snapshot, after campus culture, facilities have the second highest correlation with students’ likelihood to recommend their college or university. In our Snapshot, first-generation students generally had a more positive experience with campus facilities than the average. They rated library spaces highest (4.3 vs. mean of 4.18, out of 5). Classrooms, dining facilities, and residence halls were all above average while student health centers were below average – which could explain why NASPA found that first-gen freshman are 54% less likely to use health services than their continuing gen counterparts. Colleges and universities can build on this success by continuing to create functionally effective, inspiring, and inclusive spaces while also ensuring that their services, staffing, and operations are attuned to the needs of first-generation students. A great way to start is to assess your recent facilities projects to gather lessons learned and inform future projects.

Example of Post-Occupancy Evaluation

Getting Started Improving the First-Generation Student Experience

To put these five strategies into practice, you’ll need to create a shared definition of what you mean by first-generation students and cultivate awareness of first-generation students’ needs – and make sure you complement national reports with first-hand insights like Zipporah Osei’s previously mentioned FIRST GEN newsletter. With this awareness and focus, you can then conduct some assessment – internally within your institution through methods interviews, surveys, focus groups, and data mining as well as externally in comparison to peers and national studies. Once you identify the pain points from this assessment you can build momentum with pilot projects to make immediate impact and make the case for broader change. When you have enough momentum, joining a cohort of institutions like NASPA’s First-Gen Forward can help you accelerate your impact by sharing data and learning together. Good luck as you move ahead.

Endnote 1
The definition of “First Generation” is itself a complex issue with big impacts; for instance, depending on that definition is used, this can mean the percentage of first-gen students in the US ranges from 22% to 77%. The Center for First Generation Student Success has an excellent explanation of the range of definitions as does this New York Times article citing the work of University of Georgia professor Robert K. Toutkoushian.

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