Preparing First-Generation Students for
Academic Success

illustration of an article

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).

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.

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