Preparing First-Generation Students for
Academic Success

July 20, 2011. Given the lower retention rates of first-generation students, more colleges and universities are devoting attention to how best to aid the success and persistence of this cohort. To learn more about how higher ed institutions can respond to the issue, we turned this week to Thom Golden, senior associate director of admissions at Vanderbilt University (@Doctor_Thom on Twitter), who previously spoke with us about "Four Tips for Increasing First-Generation Student Yield."

This week, Golden draws attention to the types of bridge programming that higher ed institutions can put in place to help first-gen students enter college better prepared to persist and succeed.

Defining the Problem

"In enrolling and retaining first-generation students, aspiration isn't the issue," Golden notes. He directs attention to findings from several studies from past years:

  • According to the Ad Council's 2006 study College access: Results from a survey of low-income teens and parents, 91 percent of low-income high school students said they believed that they would complete a college degree
  • According to a 2006 US Department of Education study, The Toolbox Revisited, only 45 percent of Hispanic students attend a high school that offers calculus, and only 59 percent of white students do

Outreach to high schools and to high school students, Golden suggests, must focus less on planting seeds of aspiration and more on bridging barriers in preparation.

In fact, there are two ways in which first-generation students from low-income families that lack a legacy of college education can be under-prepared. The first is curriculum -- they may have excelled at a high school that lacked mathematics courses beyond algebra, for example. The second, Golden suggests, is "cultural capital" -- they may be unaware of expectations around class participation and how to navigate an academic environment.

Here is where Golden thinks colleges and universities can help.

Bridging the Curriculum Gap

"First," Golden suggests, "take a good look at the disconnect between the educational aspirations of your students and what they may be prepared to do. Academic preparation is critical to a student's persistence." A good step is to review the curricula of your top 10 feeder high schools; note the availability of higher-level writing courses and of mathematics courses beyond algebra and geometry:

  • How many math and science units have most of your students taken?
  • How many of these units were taught by "out-of-subject" teachers, with academic training in a field other than the subject they are teaching?
  • How many of your admits have never had calculus or trigonometry?

Because many high schools do not offer these classes, you may have many students who excelled academically yet require remediation. "In many cases, the disconnect is based on income and opportunity," Golden notes, "not academic ability."

Once you have defined the academic preparation gap, identify supplemental opportunities that can help bridge it. For example, if your institution is a four-year institution, you could admit some students provisionally and require them to take one semester at a local two-year college and then guarantee transfer to your institution if they complete the necessary courses with a certain GPA.

Or you can partner directly with your feeder schools to create summer bridge programs that make an earlier difference. Furman University's Bridges to a Brighter Future program brings 72 local students to campus for three successive summers to take courses in mathematics, English, and science taught by local teachers.

"Don't think of enrollment as a baton race where the baton is simply passed from the high school to your institution when a student is admitted. Partner with high schools to provide opportunities for greater academic preparation. This is a part of your responsibility because you are responsible for the students' persistence once they are on your campus. What's needed is partnered investment in the success of these students."
Thom Golden, Vanderbilt U

Cultural Capital

Sociologist Annette Lareau's research on parenting styles in Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (2000) and Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (2003) revealed that:

  • Many low-income children are not taught the same skills of self-advocacy that higher-income children are taught
  • Low-income parents are likely to teach their children to be more deferential toward teachers and toward authority generally

In the college classroom, however, students are expected and even encouraged to dialogue with and challenge their instructors -- it is considered part of the learning experience. "There are so many cultural things we take for granted," Golden cautions, "how to sit up front in a class, how to take good notes, how to interact with faculty. These little things, these tips of the trade, may be second nature to a parent who went to college, but completely foreign to students whose parents did not attend, and who lack mentors who can advise them on how to build a good working relationship with a professor, how to study at college, what to expect." Minus this facility with navigating the classroom and the campus, at-risk students can have a more difficult time securing the assistance and the social learning opportunities that would help them succeed.

Consider integrating into your summer program material that focuses on building cultural competency and study skills. A session like this should include:

  • Interaction with faculty during the program (and opportunities to role-play and practice the type of interactions that are encouraged in the college environment)
  • Interaction with students of a similar socioeconomic background -- develop a peer cohort

George Mason University's Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) provides a good example of this approach. STEP is a for-credit summer program with a mentorship approach. First-generation and historically under-represented students meet weekly, are paired with advisers, and form a strong college-bound student cohort as they take transitional courses and practice the study skills, tools, and resources they will need when they enroll full-time for their freshman year. STEP participants are now showing a higher GPA than their counterparts who did not take the program.