Greater numbers of first-generation students are enrolling in college, but graduation rates aren’t keeping pace. Around 30 percent of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions today are low-income, first-generation college students (meaning neither parent has received a college degree). 89 percent of these students will not earn a bachelor’s degree six years out from high school, according to I’m First, and they will drop out at four times the rate of students whose parents graduated from college.
In order to succeed, first-generation students need extra support from the institutions they attend — not only financial, but emotional and academic support. To meet this need, colleges and universities are adopting new strategies to improve retention and graduation rates for these students.
Vassar College offers a dedicated orientation for first-generation students
In 2010 a group of first-generation, low-income students and their faculty mentors formally asked Vassar College to do more to support them. The college responded by creating Transitions, a three-day, pre-orientation program for first-gen students. Since then, Transitions has expanded into a comprehensive program: a six-day pre-orientation, ongoing peer mentoring, and a reception to celebrate graduates. Eventually, Vassar hopes to create a network of Transitions graduates who can help each other progress in their lives and careers. “I think of Transitions as a space where first generation, low income, and undocumented students can find comfort and conversation, but it’s also a space that can inform and develop policy, not just for Vassar but for other colleges that are interested in supporting these students,” says Luis Inoa, Director of Transitions and Associate Dean of Students.
Smith College mentors first-generation students in the sciences
“Many first-generation and low-income students start college with less preparation than their peers,” writes Kathleen McCartney, president of Smith College and herself a first-generation college student. One solution that proved effective at Smith is a program called Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering and Sciences. Faculty and peers mentor diverse students who are interested in STEM, engaging them in research projects and providing academic and social encouragement. The results: “Students in the program perform as well as peers in gateway science courses, persist in the natural sciences at higher rates than their peers, and participate in natural-science honors and independent research at rates equivalent to their peers.”
Ivy League institutions help first-generation students see their background as an asset
Income disparity is hard to overlook at the nation’s most elite institutions. More than half of Harvard’s 2015 freshman class came from families making over $125,000 a year, while many of the 15 percent who are first-generation students came from families earning less than $40,000.
Instead of trying to hide their backgrounds, many first-gen students at the Ivies are “coming out” and celebrating their stories and their successes. “This is a movement,” said Ana Barros, leader of the Harvard College First Generation Student Union, told The New York Times. “We are not ashamed of taking on this identity.”
Part of this effort is 1VYG, an inter-college conference specifically for first-generation students at Ivy League schools. Session topics have included how to understand the “unwritten and unspoken rules” of the workplace and how to change the “deficit-based” narrative of the first-generation college student into one that leverages strengths.
California State University Dominguez Hills coaches first-generation freshmen before the semester begins
California State University Dominguez Hills, which has a large population of first-generation students, began providing a free summer bridge program for incoming freshmen who needed to improve their math and English. The two-month session not only includes academic coaching, but teaches students the ‘hidden curriculum’ — the mix of bureaucratic know-how and sound study skills that can make or break a student’s first year in college,” The Atlantic explains. For example, they may not know how to use professors’ open office hours, or they may think it’s wrong to ask for help.
In part because of this program, retention and graduation rates have risen. From 2013 to 2016, the graduation rate for full-time students rose from around 29 percent to 40 percent. From 2010 to 2016, first-year retention levels have risen from 78 percent to nearly 82 percent.