Help First-Generation College Students Succeed

Mentor students who may need added support.

January 10, 2017

When Sahara Rodriguez was 16, she took on a challenge even many adults can’t figure out: filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to determine how she would pay for college. Her parents had moved to the United States from Mexico, establishing careers in skilled trades. Rodriguez would be the first in her family to graduate from high school and pursue a college degree.

“While my parents did not fully understand American culture, they did understand the value of an education and ingrained it in me from a very young age,” said Rodriguez, now 22 and in the first year of earning a master’s in professional accounting at The University of Texas at Austin. “They realized that in America, work ethic coupled with postsecondary education gives you the opportunity to have experiences and a quality of life that will not compare to any other country in the world.”

Roughly one-third of college students are first-generation—students who are the first in their families to go to college. These students face many challenges as they pursue higher education, such as not knowing how to obtain scholarships or financial aid or how to choose courses and narrow their options for a major. Often, students also come from low-income households and work full time while they study, as Rodriguez did.

“Many first-generation college students are their family’s greatest hope,” said Linda Banks-Santilli, Ed.D., associate professor of education and interim dean of graduate and professional programs at Wheelock College in Boston. “There is enormous pressure on them to succeed. Often they decide to attend college to ensure the financial stability of their parents and families.”

These pressures can impede their pathway to graduation. The Pell Institute found that low-income, first-generation students were almost four times as likely as peers who were not low-income or had a parent who attended some college to leave after their first year of school. Within six years, nearly half (43%) of low-income, first-generation students left school without earning a degree.

Faculty can help give first-generation students the support they need to continue their education. Rodriguez, along with accounting faculty and experts on first-generation students, shared what they’ve learned about helping these students get to graduation day.

Be accessible and available. First-generation college students may need support on everything from how to study to choosing a major. Announce your office hours and encourage all students to take advantage of those hours, said Mitchell Franklin, Ph.D., CPA, assistant professor and director of the accounting department at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., where over 20% of students are first-generation.

“We just need to realize they need a little more TLC from you because, in some ways, they’re relying on you for information that for other students would come from their parents, like how to study or dress for an interview,” he said.

Professors should be as explicit as possible about their expectations, said Banks-Santilli, who also conducts research on first-generation college students. As she noted, “many first-generation students, for example, do not view the syllabus in the same way that their faculty members do—as a contract between the faculty member and the student regarding the policies and expectations of the course,” she said. They may also be unsure about, say, “what is expected of them in office hours,” she said, and may be hesitant to reach out to faculty.
Consider cultural challenges. First-generation college students disproportionately come from ethnic and racial minority backgrounds. In 2005, almost 36% of all first-generation college students were Hispanic, and about 20% of first-generation college students were African-American.

Many first-generation college students are also immigrants or first-generation U.S. citizens and may face conflict between pursuing a degree and meeting their families’ cultural expectations. Family members may assume students will work to contribute to the family income or attend family functions or take care of family members, which can cut into the time they need to prepare for class. They may also expect them to live at home instead of living on campus.

“In Hispanic culture, I was always encouraged by family members to provide for my parents and to always stick by them,” Rodriguez said. Though she continued to visit home regularly, she said it was important for her to slowly break away from responsibilities such as managing her parents’ household budget and taxes.
Family pressures can limit students’ involvement in study groups, networking, internships, and other opportunities. In some cases, meeting or speaking with students’ parents may help convey the importance of participating in additional activities.

“They really need to have a home environment that encourages study outside of school,” said Marshall Pitman, Ph.D., CPA, professor and accounting internship coordinator at The University of Texas at San Antonio, where about 45% of students are first-generation college-goers.
A cultural challenge specific to accounting is helping parents understand that it takes five years to earn enough credits to be eligible to take the CPA exam, he said.

“Many parents don’t want their children to go ahead and get the graduate degree,” said Pitman, who mentored Rodriguez when she arrived in San Antonio as a teenager. “They don’t see the need for the student to get a master’s degree. I try to explain the need for the additional year to parents. Most of the Big Four aren’t going to talk to you unless you’re CPA-exam-qualified.”

Know where to send students for additional support. Getting students to college is just the beginning; supporting them after they arrive is even more crucial, said Carmen Huerta-Bapat, director of the Carolina Firsts program for first-generation students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“There’s a distinction between access and outcomes,” said Huerta-Bapat, who herself is a first-generation college graduate.

Nationally, about 50% of first-generation college students are low-income, Banks-Santilli said, so they are unlikely to have come from a competitive high school environment, and may need assistance in college writing, methods of citation, critical reading, and time management. Faculty may want to direct students to their campus’s writing or teaching and learning center.

Share your own stories. Being the first in one’s family to attend college can be intimidating, especially in a classroom among peers who have likely come to college with better preparation, said Matt Rubinoff, chief strategy officer of Strive for College, a nonprofit that provides free online mentoring to high school students during the college admissions process.
“My advice to faculty is to share their stories, especially if you were a first-generation college graduate yourself,” he said. “It is important to find common ground.”

Faculty who might not have their own story to share can try connecting students with other mentors on campus.
Learn more. For more tips on helping first-generation students in the classroom, Rubinoff endorses the Breakthrough Strategies video series from Heritage University, which reviews such topics as how to help students overcome their fear of asking questions in class, how to build students’ confidence and give them effective feedback, and how to use tools such as analogies to help students of all backgrounds understand key concepts.

The support Rodriguez received as an undergraduate from mentors, including Pitman, has allowed her to reposition her family for generations to come, she said.

“I encourage professors and anyone with an education to not be afraid to mentor or educate someone who they think has potential to grow,” Rodriguez said. “It changed the trajectory of my life in an incredible way, and it can change someone else’s.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Courtney Vien, associate editor at the AICPA.

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