How to Help First-Generation Students Succeed
A combination of simple nudges and regular check-ins from mentors can go a long way.
Written by Mikhail Zinshteyn, Education Writers Association
A few weeks ago Reina Olivas got on the phone with a freshman college student. “She was having a hard time with the cultural experience, the college experience,” said Olivas, a college mentor who’s in her third year at the University of Texas at Austin. “So I asked her this initial question—‘Have you gone to office hours?’”
Olivas is part of an eight-person crew at the Dell Scholars Program that connects with 1,500 college students across the country who could use a helpful hint from other students who also are wending their way through higher learning.
“Well, how do you do that?” Olivas recalls the student asking. “It took me back to the place where I was my first semester—what are office hours, and why do I need to go?”
Olivas leaned heavily on mentors herself. During her first year at UT-Austin her father went to jail. Tests were approaching. She wanted to go back home in Houston, where she worked while in high school to pitch in financially for her mom and siblings. So she reached out to a Dell Ambassador, which is her current role. They first talked by phone, then met in person. “What that provided me was just: I’m not alone, I’m not the only one that’s going though these issues.”
Some demographic groups are more likely to be first-generation students than others. According to 2012 U.S. Department of Education data, while about a quarter of white and Asian American students are the first in their families to enroll at a college or university, the same is true for 41 percent of black students and 61 percent of Hispanics.
And though the needs of first-generation students and of black and Latino college-goers don’t totally overlap, their challenges are similar—and similarly misunderstood.
Among the adjustments the equity approach prompted at the college was an overhaul of how the college hires new faculty. The college also began monitoring how well students of various racial backgrounds perform in select classrooms and using that data to coach the instructors on how to improve the academic lot of their non-white students. Early signs show that the achievement gap between white, black, and Latino students is almost closed at Aurora, Bensimon said.
California State University Dominguez Hills, a state university near Los Angeles with a large population of first-generation students that has partnered with Bensimon before, has in the past three years lifted its graduation rate for full-time students from around 29 percent to what’s expected to be 40 percent at the end of this year.
In his view, more campus leaders should be asking, “Is the university ready for the student?”
As Cal State Dominguez Hills continues to fine-tune its mentoring and academic systems, more students are completing their first and second years of college. In 2008, before these reforms took place, the university lost 53 percent of its students who started school in 2006. Since 2010, the first-year retention levels have risen from 78 percent to nearly 82 percent.
The university is also sharing what it has learned through a 44-university coalition called Re-Imagining the First Year, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USA Funds. Dominguez Hills earned plaudits for its efforts to graduate more students on time, receiving a competitive $3 million innovation award from the state in 2015. And the school has partnered with a Stanford University initiative to focus more on students’ psychological well-being and confidence.
Beyond rolling out the right programs, how a campus reaches out to students can make a difference. Emails are fine, but colleges shouldn’t overlook social media. “Just adapt to what we as students are experiencing or what we’re using,” said Olivas. “We’re on our laptops to do our homework, but we’re on mobile phones, we’re a very mobile student body.”
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