Meeting the Enrollment Needs of First-Generation College Students

April Bush

Senior Consultant

October 14, 2020

As a first-generation college student, I have always been passionate about helping others navigate the process of selecting and enrolling in college—especially other first-generation college students. I have experienced first-hand the benefits of a college education, and I work with our college and university partners to help them recruit and retain first-generation students for whom a college education can be life changing.

A first-generation college student looks toward the sunrise
A degree can be life-changing for a first-generation college student, but the enrollment process more confusing and overwhelming to them.

For an 18-year-old student, college is likely the biggest decision that a person has made at this point in their young lives. However, for first-generation college students in particular, this process can be very overwhelming. There are new words they hear for the first time such as graduation rate, retention rate, early action/early decision, FAFSA, major/minor, net price calculator, prerequisites, and many more. They are being encouraged to consider retention rates and graduation rates as they choose their college, but if they do not understand why a retention rate is important, it can have little or no impact on their decision. The disadvantage to first-generation students is mainly that their parents did not have the opportunity to have this same experience and therefore are not always equipped to help them navigate this process.

Ask and act on first-generation student information

Many colleges are asking students at the point of application if they are the first in their family to attend college. This is an important step. What a college does with this information, however, is just as important as asking the question. Hopefully, colleges are entering this information into their student information system in order for this knowledge to be accessed by others who may work with the student and their family. Once an institution has this information, it should be used to guide conversations with these students and their families. Admission counselors may need to be more patient, explain next steps in more detail, and often communicate the same messages in multiple ways and at multiple points during the recruitment cycle.

According to RNL research, counselors who work with first-generation families believe there are many steps that a college can take to make the college enrollment process easier for families. These include:

  • Having a dedicated webpage as a resource for first-generation students (here is a great example of a webpage for first-generation students)
  • Willingness to speak with families (while adhering to FERPA guidelines—another abbreviation they do not know!)
  • Have current students/parents who are first generation serve as mentors to students and continue this relationship after enrollment
  • Host local presentations for first-generation families in a location that is comfortable to them (church, community center, etc).

COVID, college, and first-generation students

In a “normal” year, the college search process is challenging to first-generation students and families. In a crisis like the current pandemic, it’s overwhelming.

Last spring, RNL partnered with CampusESP, Cappex, and the NAIA to conduct research on the impacts of COVID-19. The research showed that more than 95 percent of families are concerned about paying for college and that 50 percent believe college will be more expensive as a result of COVID-19. (You can see this research and additional responses from students in our 2020 Perceptions of College Financing Report). These pressures and concerns mean that colleges need to continue to provide extra support and attention to first-generation families now more than ever. One way to do this is through hosting multiple financial aid sessions, either in-person or remote. Colleges should also share information on affordability, outcomes, and the value an education from their institution so students understand the return on their investment in a college education. This can be taken a step further, by including information specific to first-generation college students, such social mobility data for college graduates.

Continue support for first-generation students after they enroll

Once the college enrolls a first-generation student, it is equally as important to continue to support them through their college experience and help them complete their degree. When I was in admissions, we had an early arrival for first-generation students and their families, which allowed them to receive additional information and support before all other students arrived to campus.

According to the 2020 National Freshman Motivation to Complete College Report, 95 percent of first-generation students have a strong desire to continue their education and are determined to finish their degree. What’s more, that figure has held steady for a decade.

First-Generation Student Attitudes Toward College
First-generation students are committed to college and receptive to assistance, but also have challenges campuses need to address (Source: 2020 National Freshman Motivation to Complete College Report)

Again, hopefully, the college has collected the data that indicates a student is a first-generation college student and that this information continues to be shared with key stakeholders, who the student will encounter as they continue their college journey. This is especially important information for advisors to have and utilize.If your institution has a First-Year Seminar (FYS), it may also be helpful to have sections with only first-generation students. This allows the instructor to openly talk about the group as first-generation and help provide the resources they specifically need to achieve their goal of finishing their degree.

RNL student motivational data also show that 73 percent of first-generation students would like additional information on effective ways to take college exams. These students may have done well in high school but then find that college is very different from high school. They lack the guidance from their parents on finding the resources in college that are available to them and therefore need additional help from the campus. The information should also be shared with student success staff to continue to help guide these students to graduation.

Want to discuss how you can help more first-generation students succeed?

With additional support and resources, colleges and universities can help first-generation students achieve success and finish their degree. This will impact the lives of these students more than they even realize as they blaze the trail for the generations to follow in their footsteps.

We can help you engage first-generation students and guide them through the college process. Contact us today and we’ll arrange a time to discuss how you can help this growing population enroll and be poised for success.

About the Author

April Bush offers more than 15 years of experience in higher education. Her areas of expertise include undergraduate admissions, recruitment event planning, and strategic planning for marketing and communication flows. Prior to joining Ruffalo...

Read more about April's experience and expertise

Reach April by e-mail at April.Bush@RuffaloNL.com.

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