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Recruiting first-generation college students: Insights from high school counselors

Raquel Bermejo

Associate Vice President, Market Research and Planning

September 22, 2017

Co-authors: Kelly Bowling, Braden River High School, Bradenton (FL), and Melanie Hildebrandt, Johansen High School, Modesto (CA)

Recently I’ve had the privilege of working with a panel of high school counselors who are passionate about helping students connect to the right colleges. One takeaway? First-generation students are different, they say. You can’t treat them the same as everyone else. It simply doesn’t work.

Counselors: A go-to resource for first-generation students

Before we explore what’s different, here’s one reason why counselors are crucial for helping to recruit first-generation students:

First-generation college students: sources of financial aid information

As you can see, high school counselors are 2X as important as college websites AND 7x as important as parents for providing first-generation students with vital information about college financial aid—one of the main sorting factors for these students as they choose which college to attend. So when recruiters are looking for ways to increase their impact, building relationships with counselors is a strong starting point.

Less time to recruit first-generation students

One of the first differences high school counselors point out about first-generation students is that the timeline to work with them on college planning is often shorter:


Have you started your college search?

RNL research shows fully 25 percent of prospective first-generation students have NOT started their college planning by May of their junior year. In addition, 45 percent of these students will consider applying to colleges they learn about in their senior year vs. 30 percent of non-first-generation students. This means first-generation student recruitment often takes place in a compressed timeframe.

Finances play a bigger role for first-generation students

Counselors also point out that first-generation students are more worried about paying for college…

…and that these students keep worrying more as they begin their college classes:

As you can see, the counselors’ concerns are consistently backed up by RNL research.

This means—beyond a doubt—that first-generation students require extra attention to help them address their concerns with college costs and affordability—right up until they enroll, and also after they enroll.

Another terrific way to build your enrollment pipeline of first-generation students

Perhaps the biggest payoff in listening to high school counselors’ insights—since they are the main go-to resource for first-generation college students—is that you can learn how to build their confidence in sending you referrals. To do this, you need to understand what counselors themselves need from colleges to help them counsel first-generation students properly.

Here are three important counselors’ concerns when they are working with first-generation students and families:

  • First-generation students and their parents need help with meeting deadlines, and with being aware of deadlines.
  • Some parents and/or cultures feel uncomfortable with a policy of only talking to students. It is important to communicate with both first-generation students and their parents, and parents’ means of communicating is often different than students’.
  • Not all high schools have a means of identifying first-generation students. It would be really helpful if colleges would, when communicating with students who identify as first-generation, to recommend that the student notifies their high school counselor that they are a first-generation student.

7 strategies for engaging first-generation college studentsRead 7 strategies for guiding first-generation students on their journey to college

Find out how you can engage and inform first-generation students and their parents as your reach out to enroll them. Read our strategy sheet now for more key facts about first-generation students and strategies for reaching them. Read now.

Related resources:


About the Author

Dr. Raquel Bermejo analyzes existing search, inquiry, and conversion data in addition to conducting original research with college-seeking students and parents to understand trends and student behaviors. Her research informs and enhances the services the...

Read more about Raquel's experience and expertise

Reach Raquel by e-mail at Raquel.Bermejo@RuffaloNL.com.


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