Student success essentials – building capacity to serve first-generation students

Mari Normyle

Assistant Vice President for Retention Solutions

September 14, 2015

Are you seeing an increase in first-generation students at your college or university? Or are you developing programs that focus on first-generation students?

Many campuses have begun targeting first-generation students in their student success initiatives. The reasons for this vary from an increase in enrollment of first-generation students to an enhanced awareness of first-generation students as an at-risk population. Regardless of the reasons why, it is helpful to examine the differing needs of this population of students in order to understand and shape strategies to help more of these students succeed.

What the research shows

The 2015 National Freshman Attitudes Report from Ruffalo Noel Levitz includes responses from 24,409 first-generation students as they began classes in fall 2014 at four-year private, four-year public, and two-year institutions across the country. In examining the first-generation students’ responses, some interesting patterns emerge. Compared with students of college-educated parents, first-gens are:

  • More committed to earning a college degree;
  • More comfortable with people who have different opinions on social and/or political issues;
  • More inclined to have a career direction;
  • More receptive to academic assistance and career counseling;
  • More interested in receiving financial guidance.

So, first-gen students bring some clear strengths with them as they enter college; however, they do report challenges as well. Compared again with students of college-educated parents, the first-gen data from this study reveal:

  • Fewer report “I have the financial resources I need to finish college” (37 percent for first-gen vs. 51 percent for non-first-gen);
  • More intend to work more than 20 hours/week (29 percent vs. 16 percent);
  • More report challenges in succeeding in math (47 percent vs. 41 percent);
  • Fewer have degree aspirations beyond the bachelor’s degree (45 percent vs. 58 percent);
  • More report planning to transfer to another institution to earn their degree (14 percent vs. 12 percent).

10 priorities for serving first-generation students

As campus leaders marshall their resources to address the needs of first-generation students in order to increase their success rates, here are 10 priorities to guide your efforts:

  1. Institutionalize a strong commitment to serving first-generation students;
  2. Gather data on your first-generation students (noncognitive/motivational data such as the findings above, as well as the usual admissions/financial aid data) in order to understand your students individually and as a group;
  3. Identify and track the persistence, progression, and performance of first-generation students;
  4. Provide early arrival and integration programs;
  5. Focus on what’s distinctive about your first-generation students—some of their needs will be unique though many of their needs will be in common with other students;
  6. Utilize upper-level first-generation students and first-generation faculty/staff as mentors;
  7. Involve their families in programming and ongoing communications;
  8. Address financial pressures through financial literacy programs and support in securing additional scholarship funds;
  9. Build a sense of pride in being a first-generation student and a community of first-generation students, faculty, and staff;
  10. Plan for first-gen support beyond the first year, since research shows that substantial attrition continues to plague many students and campuses during year two.

Explore 85 attitudes held by first-generation freshmen

To learn more about first-generation students, download the 2015 National Freshman Attitudes Report and read more blogs, listed below. For information on gathering noncognitive data to better understand your own first-generation students, or to discuss effective student success strategies for this population, please contact me by email.

About the Author

Dr. Mari K. Normyle, assistant vice president for retention solutions, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America supporting student success and retention efforts through student motivation assessment and early alert programs. With more...

Read more about Mari's experience and expertise

Reach Mari by e-mail at Mari.Normyle@RuffaloNL.com.

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Enrollment, Student Success