Dr. Kent Ingle: 7 ways to help first-generation college students succeed

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On Nov. 8, higher education institutions across the country will celebrate first-generation college students. The date coincides with the day that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 to strengthen the educational resources of colleges and universities and to provide financial support for students in postsecondary and higher education. 

Yet, many first-generation college students still struggle financially and academically compared to their peers. In fact, close to 90% of low-income first-generation students don’t graduate within six years. Nearly 21% of Generation Z students are first-generation college students. 

Faculty, staff and parents can play a key role in helping first-generation college students thrive.  

Here are seven ways to position first-generation college students for success.  

Talk about financial support. Many first-generation students aren’t aware of the financial resources that are available to them. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that only 65% of high school seniors complete the FAFSA each year, and first-generation and low-income students are less likely to apply for this aid. Many of these students will end up working more than 20 hours a week to finance their education. Yet, many low-income students could get up to $6,495 in Pell Grants (free money they don’t have to pay back). This could substantially help cut the cost of college in addition to other scholarships that are available. 

Help them succeed in their first two years. One study found that one-third of first-generation college students are likely to drop out of college within three years, most often in their freshman and sophomore years. Colleges can set up programs or classes for first-year students to keep them engaged. At Southeastern, we have a class called SEU 101 for first-year students. We also have a whole program dedicated to these students called the First Year Experience, which hosts events, mentorship groups and family dinners to get new students acclimated. These types of programs are key for connecting first-generation students with peers. 

This Nov. 8, let’s celebrate every first-generation student on our campuses and provide ways for them to continue to flourish in their environments.  

Provide mentorship opportunities. First-generation college students are less likely than their peers to have the support they need to accomplish their degrees. Since their parents didn’t go to college, it’s critical they find mentors who can support them along the way. These mentors could be faculty, staff or alumni of the university. The benefit we have at Southeastern University is having a low faculty-to-student ratio. This allows faculty to get to know students on a personal level, and they can be crucial in helping students succeed. Simple gestures, such as checking in with students, can help them feel valued and keep them focused on their studies.  

Facilitate peer groups. Peer groups can help students feel more engaged. When they get to know students in their classes and feel a sense of belonging, it can help increase retention. Student groups can also encourage students academically, provide more networking opportunities and help students talk to each other about challenges they might be facing. Many students may find it easier to approach a student in their class rather than a faculty or staff member. At Southeastern, we offer mentorship groups where we will pair a group of first-year students with an upperclassman. The students who have been at the university longer can help new students get adjusted to our campus culture and can be a great support to these students on their academic journey.  

Emphasize the importance of internships. Surveys by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reveal that graduates who had internships were 90% more likely to get job offers than graduates who didn’t. The challenge is that most first-generation college students have to work to help cover their college expenses. Spending time at an internship can cut down on the number of hours they are able to work. However, universities can help students find paid internships. The more connections a student can make before graduation, the better they will be set up for success following graduation. 

Make them aware of the career services center on campus. Research at Florida State University found that first-generation students were less knowledgeable about job search requirements and had less access to networks than other students did. One of the areas students were not aware of was how to write a resume. A college’s career services office will often hold mock interviews for students to learn how to interview well and offer workshops to help students develop their resumes. Our center at Southeastern hosts an annual Career Week and other expos where companies are invited to campus to interview students for open positions.  

Let them know about study abroad opportunities. The Institute of International Education reported that half of the people who studied abroad said it helped them get a job or promotion. Many first-generation students often make less financially than their peers when they graduate and enter the workforce. Study-abroad opportunities can help increase a student’s worldview. It can teach them about other cultures, and they could possibly learn a new language. It also opens their eyes to career opportunities around the world. The more equipped a student is for success, the better. They also can build connections with people overseas that could help them one day.  

One of the most important things parents and colleges can do for first-generation students is to celebrate their incredible accomplishments. Whether a freshman or a graduating senior, we have to start recognizing the remarkable journey these students have been on to be the first person in their family to attend or graduate from college.  

Many of these students encounter challenges such as juggling jobs, academics and navigating unfamiliar territory. This Nov. 8, let’s celebrate every first-generation student on our campuses and provide ways for them to continue to flourish in their environments.  

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