For many students, the road to college is a familiar one. Many graduating high school students have heard their parents reminisce for years about their college days and provide advice about how to succeed. For most, college isn’t merely a privilege: it’s an expectation, a necessary step on their career path.
This is not, however, the reality for all students. Nationally, around 30% of all graduates are the first in their family to attend college. The vast majority of these students are low-income, and many face passive reactions or even opposition from their family when they decide to attend college. If the United States hopes to reach Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, this population is especially important: only eleven percent of these graduates actually finish college within six years.
How should higher education institutions support and retain these students? As many first-generation students enter college without the support network that other students have, colleges and universities must work hard to create in-house networks for these students. The University of Cincinnati provides one excellent model: help students with study skills, time management, the college transition and – especially key – dealing with their families during this new and confusing time.
While some might argue that such efforts – special housing for first generation students, additional coursework, staff support – would be exceptionally expensive, I would argue that higher education institutions cannot afford to ignore these students and let them drop out. Consider the situation from a business perspective: if you knew that you would have a 27% customer attrition rate, wouldn’t you focus your resources and efforts at lowering this number? Of course, it makes sense to also consider this issue from a social perspective: what impact, what new achievements would be possible for the US if we helped these highly motivated, resilient and tenacious young students develop to their fullest potential?
Second Home for First-Gens
As thousands of low-income, first-generation freshmen flock to campus in the next two months, many, despite their intelligence and optimism, will arrive only to be gone in an academic eye blink. Just 11 percent of them earn a bachelor’s degree after six years, according to the Pell Institute, compared with 55 percent of their peers.
That fact was frustrating administrators at the University of Cincinnati, where more than 40 percent of its 5,000 freshmen this fall will be the first in their families to go to college. In its mission to get low-income, first-generation students through its doors, the university was succeeding. But once in, many were failing.“These students find themselves on campus, and overwhelmed quickly,” says Stephanie A. Cappel, the executive director of Partner for Achieving School Success, a center devoted to university-community partnerships and outreach programs.“They don’t even know what questions to ask.”