There are lots of reasons to ensure that all students--and I do mean all students--who seek a higher education are able to successfully complete.  This includes a range of important reasons such as ensuring that opportunities are equitable and attainable as well as ensuring that the country stays competitive in our increasingly global economy.  And in order to achieve our national completion goals, we must focus on those students who may be some of the first in their families to access higher education.

We recently partnered with the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), for a webinar: First-generation Student Success: Using Actionable Data to Drive Culture Change.  Sarah E. Whitley, Ph.D., Senior Director, Center for First-generation Student Success, talked about the research and work they've done to understand some of the challenges as well as the assets that first generation students bring to institutions. 

The team from the Center interviewed or surveyed 300+ four-year institutions and the findings were wide-ranging about their experiences and about their success. They shared stories from colleges that are being innovative and intentional in how they support students, but the core takeaway remains--that first-generation students face considerable risk: 

  • 33% of students are the first in their family to go to college (NCES)  
  • 89% of low-income first-generation students leave college within 6 years without a degree and 25+% leave after their first year. (NCES)

In short, there were some fundamental lessons and promising practices shared in the webinar, including: 

  1. Each institution need to define the first-generation student identity. A first-generation student may fall into the group in which neither parent earned a 4-year degree. While this is the predominant case for first-generation students, there are many additional cases. The challenges first-generation students face are often multi-dimensional, so it’s important to understand this student at your institution in order to align, measure, and support the needs of your students.
  2. Understand the “First-generation Student Plus.” Often, our first-generation students may have different characteristics or needs that make it even tougher for them to persist and complete. For example, a student might be first-generation plus low-income or first generation plus a student of color--and your institution may not have a good track record of supporting students like them historically. An institution must understand their potential overlaps, define what it means to be a first-generation student, and then develop what specific groups of students need so that they can provide and link the right interventions and supports in a timely manner. 

This webinar offers rich information for any institution interested in supporting first-generation students and responding with specific changes in policy and practice. As we start a fresh new school year, I encourage you to be mindful of the unique needs of first-generation students as they begin their journey on-campus. If you weren’t able to attend but would like to view the recording, access it here.

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