The Issue

Almost a third of college undergraduates are first-generation students, but only 27 percent of these students graduate within four years. The obstacles they face affect nearly every aspect of their education. They often lack mentors, advocates, and programming designed to meet their needs. Their peers may judge their challenges as personal shortcomings or character flaws. Financial, academic, and social challenges can easily derail their college experience.

But some schools have begun to change the way they serve first-generation students. These institutions see their students’ unique backgrounds as assets that will enhance the entire campus community. They identify students’ strengths, talents, and distinctive experiences to build their pride and confidence. And instead of expecting students to be “college-ready,” they now adapt their services and programs to be “student-ready.”

 The Summary

This analysis delves deeply into the first-gen experience, identifying ways that colleges and universities can reshape their cultures to better serve these students. It’s difficult work that requires institutions to critically examine every aspect of their approach to first-gen success. The most successful schools have made wholesale changes to the way they define and identify first-generation students. They’ve overhauled outdated services and expanded their programming to meet the needs of a broader group. And they’ve engaged a bigger slice of the campus community to aid their work.

Summer bridge programs have long been the foundation of the first-generation experience. But they’re no longer sufficient. Colleges and universities now offer programs that continue beyond graduation. They provide mentoring and coaching from a larger, more diverse group of faculty, peers, and alumni. They collect and share information more widely across campus. And they more broadly define the students they hope to reach. For example, students who identify as low-income, immigrant, or LGBTQIA are offered services tailored to meet their unique needs.

If all goes well, the students who benefit from this new approach will ultimately aid their schools by serving as coaches and mentors for first-generation students who follow.

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