In 2015, 56% of college undergraduates were first-generation students. With accessibility to higher education extending to an increasingly broader scope of students (adults, part-time, online, international), that number will continue to increase accordingly. This profile shift of postsecondary education demands a rethinking of how institutions can equitably allocate resources to their first-generation students who, compared to their continuing-generation peers, can face obstacles such as lack of familial income support, general college know-how, degree planning expertise, and social as well as professional connections. To be equitable is to cater assistance to those who need it most. 33% of first-generation students drop out by the 3rd year of college, as opposed to 14% for continuing generation students, which begs the question: how can we better serve this population and improve outcomes? Implementation of three tactics can be a good starting point for higher education institutions.
- Give first-generation students a blueprint for success - and do it early
Early degree planning plays a crucial role in predicting a student’s psychological, emotional, and logistical future -- influencing both academic comfort and engagement, regardless of familial academic history. First-generation students confront all the same pains and difficulties as their peers, but have additional hurdles on the path to degree attainment. It is imperative to recognize that poor degree management systems impede that end. Conversely, robust academic blueprints provide peace of mind. Equipping first-generation students with an adequate degree plan secures their sense of studenthood at a university and clearly lays out their academic objectives.
In order to better serve non-traditional students, institutions must adopt degree management systems with intuitive design and an easy user experience to accommodate a growing population of students who are “new” to the college environment. For example, course registration and degree audits are infamously hard to navigate, and could partially explain why only 30% of first-generation students report engaging with academic support services. These systems would garner far more engagement if their design mimicked apps these students use everyday, making academic services more approachable across multiple support channels including advising, tutoring, career services, and mentorship.
- Enable advisors to be proactive, rather than depending on students to seek support
Academic advising can provide incredible support towards reaching favorable student outcomes, but its potential has yet to be fully recognized amongst first-generation students. Only 55% of first-generation students engage with academic advising services, compared to 72% of continuing generation students.
In order for advisors to be proactive, identification is key. Advisors need to be able to quickly and effectively filter through those target groups of students and apply support where needed. Early intervention before problems arise could mean the difference between a college dropout and a college graduate; however, it’s easy for these students to fly under the radar without proper tracking or visibility. Universities can begin tracking this information in a number of ways -- admissions applications, incoming student surveys, orientation registration and scholarship applications. However, without a centralized tracking system or powerful filters to report on these groups, that data is not actionable. Now more than ever is the time to abandon antiquated degree management systems and adapt to the changing climate of postsecondary education.
- Use digital channels to foster better student engagement
Equally important for fostering engagement is the method of advisor-student communication. Institutions have to confront the 21st century realities of pandemic life where onboarding students expect their universities to have transitioned to updated channels of communication. Distanced learning has emphasized the pertinence of good academic advising -- students collaborating with their advisors virtually on academic plans provides reassurance in a time that feels so uncertain.
Advisor outreach is predominantly conducted through email and office hours, but text reminders, shared notes, and virtual meetings are preferable to today’s students who seek increasingly on-demand support. Offering more approachable channels for advising improves the likelihood that a student will utilize an advisor to clarify academic or career goals, or to connect with other relevant faculty or services -- both of which are outcomes that promote student success.
For instance, Florida Atlantic University moved its operations online in response to coronavirus, which resulted in half as many no-shows for academic advising appointments (from 16% to 8%); that translates to over 1000 additional advising appointments over the course of a year without any additional staffing resources! Other institutions such as Tufts University, University of Chicago and Colorado College use Stellic’s degree management platform to promote first-generation student engagement by enabling students to directly message their academic advisor (and vice versa) through the same system as their course registration, audit, and reporting, thus allowing them to collaborate on their plan with an advisor, track their progress, and inquire about requirements or opportunities without the hassle of navigating multiple websites or going to in-person office hours. Virtual support spaces such as these make students feel empowered to self-advocate and drive their success.