First-generation college students are less likely than their peers whose parents graduated from college to have a mentor who is a college professor.
It’s a finding that got less attention than it deserved following the recent 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey, which reports on new college graduates’ experiences with mentors during their time as students.
Higher-education leaders need to take steps to better support their first-generation learners. While the mentoring gap is modest — 61 percent of first-generation students’ mentors, compared with 66 percent of continuing-generation or “college-experienced” students’ — it is symptomatic of the ways that higher-education institutions are failing first-generation students.
The accepted lexicon for discussing college students is “traditional,” meaning those who attend college full time right out of high school, and “non-traditional,” meaning those who attend when they’re older than 24, have a family, work, are financially independent from their parents or have been in the military.
Today, a whopping 74 percent of college students have at least one “non-traditional” characteristic. Significantly, 44 percent of students are “first-generation” — that is, they have parents who did not earn a bachelor’s degree.
In some respects, that’s encouraging, suggesting that classrooms in 2018 enjoy a greater diversity of perspectives and experiences than those of the past, which can enrich learning environments in many ways.
The problem, though, is that higher-education institutions haven’t quite caught up with the changing demographics of their student bodies, and it shows: only about half of first-generation college students earn bachelor’s degrees within six years of enrolling, compared to 64.2 percent of their college-experienced peers.
When you dig a little, that gap is hardly surprising: only 58 percent of schools report offering any targeted support services for “non-traditional” students.
Which brings me back to the Strada finding: in addition to lacking formal, school-sponsored support, first-generation students are also less likely to enjoy informal support from a professor-mentor. That’s problematic because professor-mentors have been shown to help students in both the short term (greater academic achievement) and the long term (improved self-confidence).
It’s not hard to guess what might drive the gap: first-generation students didn’t hear stories growing up about their parents chatting in a professor’s office after hours. They may not realize that seeking one-on-one relationships is encouraged and beneficial. More practically, they may have responsibilities like jobs or family support roles (indeed, the median family income for first-generation students is less than half that of their peers, and they are more likely to work while enrolled in college).
Luckily, there are concrete steps that higher-education institutions can take to better support these students and help them earn degrees.
Schools need to acknowledge the reality of their “post-traditional” student bodies — and adjust.
Student-focused resources may — and probably should — take many forms. Vassar, for example, offers a support program for first-generation students that includes a pre-orientation period to acclimate them to the campus, introduce them to resources, and let them get to know one another to develop support networks.
That’s an admirable start. But developing in-house programs is resource- and time-intensive.
To support first-generation students on an ongoing basis, schools should also consider partnering with third parties who can provide services more flexibly than faculty or staff can.
Because first-generation students are more likely to work outside school, they are less likely to be able to attend professors’ office hours for one-on-one instruction or visit the health center when it’s open. Partnering with providers that offer on-demand or round-the-clock services (like the app TalkSpace, which offers the ability to access mental-health counseling 24/7) can make essential support available to students on their own schedules, regardless of their other commitments.
Partnerships also help colleges scale new services cost effectively, a crucial consideration as student populations evolve.
But student-focused support is only one piece of the puzzle. Families could also benefit from orientation. Schools could create literature, online tutorials and in-person events to educate families about what will be expected of students in a college setting.
Professors, too, should receive instruction in the challenges unique to first-generation students. Part of this might include the recommendation to reach out to these students proactively, to initiate the kinds of relationships that might lead to mentoring.
In other words, the current problems for first-generation students are mostly problems of poor communication.
In a way, that’s encouraging: bridging communication gaps is a relatively straightforward task. To ensure that bridging happens, though, universities must acknowledge the changing composition of their student bodies, communicate to their faculties the implications of these changes, and recognize that success at scale will mean adapting the services they make available.
This story about first-generation college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
Andrew Geant is the co-founder and CEO of Wyzant, a tutoring marketplace that supports one-on-one, online and in-person instruction.