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first generation college students
Mothers listen to a representative of the Chicago Gear Up program discuss best practices for helping their children apply to college. After decades working with families of high school kids, the federal program extended its model this year to provide support through the first year of college. Credit: Aaron Cantú for The Hechinger Report

Robert Aranda knew it was coming. For years, his daughter Alexis had been telling him that she wanted to go far away for college. Since Aranda had never attended college himself and his oldest daughter had gone to a local school while living at home, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I was concerned and afraid of what might happen to her, but you cannot cut their wings,” said Aranda, an operations manager for a talent supply chain company. When Alexis accepted an offer from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio — a four-hour drive from their home in McAllen, Texas — one of his main concerns was for her safety. He asked school officials for information about the frequency of rape on campus, but says they couldn’t give him the assurances he desired.

Eventually, Aranda accepted that there would always be a certain amount of risk in letting his daughter go off on her own. And he found other ways to assure himself that she’d be OK: He and his wife scrutinized the campus when they dropped her off, and have been visiting monthly. He talks to Alexis nearly every day.

Aranda is also part of a Facebook group with other parents of first-generation college students, whom he met through a federal government program called Gear Up. Besides safety, a frequent topic for the group is how to stay on top of financial aid. Parents exchange tips on identifying grants and scholarships, refiling the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and completing income verification forms with the IRS. They can also text an adviser at Gear Up with questions like these, which are exactly the sorts of issues that can trip up their children on the road to graduation.

About a third of students whose parents didn’t attend college drop out, compared with 26 percent of students whose parents attended some college and 14 percent of those whose parents hold bachelor’s degrees.

Students who are first in their families to attend college contend with unique challenges. They are more likely to come from poor-performing high schools, low-income backgrounds and households where English isn’t spoken. And without the benefit of parents’ college-going experience, they have fewer tools to navigate college bureaucracies and day-to-day campus life. These factors combine to depress first-generation student graduation rates, say higher education experts. According to one study, a third of first-generation college students drop out within three years.

In recent years, colleges have been trying to slow that exodus by creating offices devoted to first-generation students, organizing peer groups and connecting students with tutoring and extra support. Now some institutions are coming to realize that programming for first-generation students isn’t enough to get them across the finish line — they also need to target their parents. Gear Up, which has long supported low-income families with college prep and applications, recently extended its model through the first year of college. And a handful of colleges and universities are designing outreach efforts for parents of first-generation students, and finding new ways to engage them in campus events.

“It’s necessary for us as institutions to engage those parents and families of first-generation students and help them understand the college process, so they can also be supportive in that way,” said Amy Baldwin, who oversees the Department of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas and is an adviser to the Center for First-Generation Student Success. She said that more institutions may try to find ways to include parents and families in their children’s higher education in the coming years.

Related: How first-generation students are helping each other through college

Today, about a third of students enrolled in higher education are the first in their families to attend college. Research suggests that having even one parent who has attended some college can boost student success. In a study last year, the Department of Education found that about a third of students whose parents didn’t attend college dropped out, compared with 26 percent of students whose parents attended some college and 14 percent of those whose parents hold bachelor’s degrees. In an earlier study, researchers found that first-generation students were most likely to drop out between their freshman and sophomore years.

At Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, which reports that more than a third of its students are first generation, administrators have zeroed in on that first year as a key part of their strategy to retain students, according to Celestino Limas, the school’s vice president for student life. Limas piloted a 7-week interactive online video course last fall for parents of freshmen students, which he described as an “extension” of the school’s freshman orientation. He and student government representatives talked about what to expect from campus life and how parents can to talk to their children about their studies, financial situations and social lives, which are sensitive subjects for both sides.

“Often, parents want to know how to ask certain questions to their students, or how to talk to their kids about relationships [on campus],” Limas said, noting that more than 200 parents enrolled in the course.

The topics of the videos, which remain available to parents online, range from discussions about tuition changes and campus services to milestones such as midterms and finals, when students might be under extra stress.

In one of the videos, separation anxiety and financial concerns were common themes. One parent typed in to ask whether a child’s scholarship would be affected by the school’s plan to reduce tuition the following year, while another wanted to know if the campus featured social events for students every weekend. Learning how to effectively manage college’s abundance of free time — which can be a shock for many students who are accustomed to a structured schedule in high school — was also a focus of questions.

Time management posed a particular challenge for first-generation student Kylar Harvey.* After arriving at Elizabethtown in fall 2016, he had trouble juggling her classwork while also dedicating three hours a day to the swim team. A car accident that winter left him even more overwhelmed by schoolwork and the responsibilities of living on his own, he said. Instead of alleviating stress, communication with his parents back home in Easton, Pennsylvania, exacerbated it.

“My family put a lot of pressure on me because I’m the last chance [for someone in my family] to get a good education and a good job,” said Harvey, now a rising senior. “I felt like I needed to lie to my parents and [say] that I was doing well in college.”

Eventually, Harvey said, he confided in his mother, and lifted his grades with the help of a campus program that provides intensive academic counseling for first-generation students. But the pressure he felt from her family, as if he were carrying all their dreams on his shoulders, captures how the transition to college can be especially difficult for first-generation students, say people who work in higher education.

“My family put a lot of pressure on me because I’m the last chance [for someone in my family] to get a good education and a good job. I felt like I needed to lie to my parents and [say] that I was doing well in college.”

Administrators at Virginia Commonwealth University had in mind experiences like Harvey’s when they began to develop outreach programs to families of first-generation students, said Daphne Rankin, the associate vice provost. Since 2014, the university has offered online video courses similar to those at Elizabethtown, but starting this fall, it will also host meetings over Zoom exclusively for first-generation parents, she said.

first generation college students
Students walk across the campus of UCLA. The school’s office for first-generation students has started to work more closely with its office of parent and family programs. Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The needs of these parents “are very different at times than the rest of the parent cohorts,” said Rankin, who serves as an adviser to the Center for First-Generation Student Success. “Many can’t imagine not having students at home and what life will be like, so they make the transition for students even harder without realizing it.”

Some colleges are trying to bridge the divides between their programs for parents and those for students. At UCLA, for example, the school’s office for first-generation students has started to work more closely with its office of parent and family programs, said La’Tonya Rease Miles, director of first year experience and strategic initiatives at UCLA and a national expert on the subject.

One example of that coordination, Miles said, came after the school opened a new residential floor specifically for first-generation students. When students move in, their parents are now invited to attend a reception, where translators are available to answer questions they have.

“We want to make sure [first-generation parents’] experiences here are more meaningful, and happen earlier and more often,” Miles said. “We want them to be part of the welcoming, to stay for a moment and come see your student move in and not feel rushed to leave campus.”

Related: How educational opportunity programs graduate first-generation college students

first generation college students
After her daughter received support through the Gear Up program, Alma Vargas, pictured here, was inspired to go back to school herself. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree while also working as a full-time employee of Gear Up. Credit: Aaron Cantú for The Hechinger Report

St. Mary’s, where Aranda’s daughter is going to college, doesn’t offer explicit programs for parents of first-generation students, he said, though officials there have been responsive to his many questions. A spokesperson for St. Mary’s told The Hechinger Report that the school offers parent-focused sessions for incoming and current freshmen students during orientation events and also has a mentoring program for first-generation students in their first year.

Aranda instead turns to Gear Up, whose advisers work with cohorts of students before they enroll in any specific college. After helping students and their families navigate high school and the college admissions process, Gear Up stays in contact as the students head off to their respective schools both near and far.

“Parents have to be part of any education program, or else you’re not going to be successful,” said Margaret Boyter-Escalona, who started working for Gear Up in 1999 and now serves as the associate director of the program’s Chicago office. When she started, she was hearing from parents who felt patronized by administrators at their children’s schools.

“ ‘They don’t listen to us, they talk at us, they tell us what we should think,’ ” Boyter-Escalona recalled hearing from parents. She and her Gear Up staff took the opposite approach, presuming parents were experts in raising their children. A dissertation that looked at the first 10 years of Gear Up’s results found that students in the program whose parents took an active interest in their education had better GPAs and a greater commitment to attending college.

“Institutions are finally understanding, especially for first-generation college families, the family goes together. The student is the one who takes the classes, but it’s a family event.”

A few years ago, in response to growing concerns that participating students were making it to college but not finishing, Gear Up applied for funds to support families even after their children had left home.

“The first year is tough for everyone, especially if you’re a first-generation college goer,” said Wendy Stack, director of the Gear Up program in Chicago.

The organization moved away from holding group activities for parents and toward a coaching model in which they could answer the questions of individual parents. For the most part, said Lorena Gasca, the senior program manager for Gear Up’s college transition team, those questions focus on financial aid, a frequent stumbling block for first-generation families.

Gasca said she is pleased to see more higher education institutions reaching out to first-generation parents. “Institutions are finally understanding, especially for first-generation college families, the family goes together,” she said. “The student is the one who takes the classes, but it’s a family event.”

Since his daughter Alexis enrolled at St. Mary’s, Robert Aranda has gone back to school himself. Most evenings after work he hits the books in pursuit of an associate’s degree in business administration. It’s not an uncommon thing; several Gear Up participants who spoke with The Hechinger Report said they were inspired to enroll in college after getting involved in their children’s educational pursuits.

Aranda said he’d been thinking for some time of enrolling, but that “having to guide my daughters to college has certainly awakened in me the need to ‘walk the talk.’ “

If all goes as planned, Aranda will finish his studies by the fall and have an associate degree in hand. Then, Aranda says, he will start the second phase of his program — obtaining a bachelor’s degree at the end — and, he hopes, join his daughters as a four-year college graduate.

*Correction: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of the name of Elizabethtown student Kylar Harvey.

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