First-generation students are a large segment of the higher education population. They are attending school on virtually every campus in the US. Generally first-generation students are defined two ways: as students whose parents did not attend college, or as students whose parents didn’t earn a four-year degree. With either of these definitions, first-gen students are a diverse population. They are “from every race, ethnicity and background,” says Sarah Whitley, Director of the Center for First-Generation Student Success. “They are from every economic status; they are from high schools that have 10 students and high schools with 3,000 students.”
They also may be older than most traditional students. Just 57 percent of first-generation students enrolled in higher education within three months of high school graduation compared to 78 percent of students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree. In the academic year 2015-16, 28 percent of first-generation students were age 30 or higher, compared to 16 percent of students whose parents had a degree. This delayed entry increases the obstacles first-gen students face. Similar to other nontraditional students they may have family responsibilities, work obligations and increased financial pressures.
However, there are additional obstacles that first-generation students face that have nothing to do with their age, family and work responsibilities. Often what they lack is the resources to guide them through an unfamiliar experience. They don’t have family that can give them encouragement or tips on planning schedules and class loads. They don’t have knowledge of information sources, such as counseling or career centers. The often don’t know how to access financial aid or how to get course materials for the best price. For example, a National Association of College Stores study says that first-generation students spend 17 percent more per textbook than non-first-gen students. Information about new, used, digital options and rental could ease this burden. According to a Barnes & Noble College study these obstacles, rather than family, work or financial worries, lead to a feeling of alienation that makes first-generation students most at-risk.
First-generation students are about half of all college students but only about 27 percent complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. Schools are working towards improving that graduation rate with some interesting programs. For example, North Central College near Chicago prints a list of every person on campus who was the first in their family to go to college. There are math, chemistry, economics and art professors. The dean of admissions and athletic coaches, counseling and career services staff are on the list. Identifying these people as first-generation students who have completed their education can help alleviate the feeling of alienation.
Employer education benefits can also help first-generation students achieve success. Counseling and mentoring within tuition assistance programs help establish career paths and education paths. This can ensure that first-generation students have forward momentum. This direction will help them see results that lead toward completion. Career paths that celebrate first-generation student/employee success are an essential part of educating employees and creating talent resources within the company.
The National Center for Education Statistics shows that first-generation students are 19 percent less likely to finish college than students whose parents have college experience. Tuition assistance programs are a resource that can change this for many people. Creating an advantage for first-generation students will benefit both individuals and their employers.
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