How to Prepare a First-Generation Student for College

Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High School Principal; MA in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist

I grew up knowing that I was going to college after high school. There was never a question. My dad had purchased my college credits when I was little through a prepaid tuition plan, which some states offer. He handled all of my financial aid paperwork and loans. I only had to fill out the actual applications to the institutions. When I started helping some of my urban students consider applying to college, I realized quickly that they did not grow up in the same culture of education that I had. Many of them were on their way to becoming a first-generation college student.

What is a First-Generation Student?

A first-generation college student is a student whose parents and/or guardians, as well as any other immediate family members, have not attended college or earned a bachelor’s degree. Students who are the first in their families to attend college are trailblazers within their family! It is a very proud accomplishment and one that parents and guardians dream of for their children; however, it is not one that is easily achieved with no prior knowledge of the processes within the family.

Craft Projects that Engage

One way that we as educators can support first-generation students in preparation for college is to craft projects and class assignments that engage learners in a way that supports student growth into autonomous learners. An essay from UK Essays titled “Autonomous Learner Characteristics” defines autonomous learners as “independent in terms of selecting their own goals and purposes, deciding on materials, choosing ways of learning and tasks, and opting for criteria for self-evaluation (Eyob, 2008).”

When students go to college, they are often unprepared or underprepared to be independent thinkers or decision-makers. In order to be successful at the college level, students must be able to transition from a high level of support to a low level in regards to time management. The skill of being able to balance responsibilities, time, and money with much less support or structure is extremely challenging for students. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, “The 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at 4-year degree-granting institutions in fall 2011 overall was 60 percent.”

While there are many reasons why students are not successful in school, a report conducted by Diploma to Nowhere authors stated, “nearly half [of students polled] would have preferred that their high school classes had been more difficult in order to better prepare them for university-level academics. Another 80 percent said that they would have worked harder if their high school had set higher expectations.” Projects that develop autonomous thinkers and learners are one way with which schools can challenge their students in order to be better prepared to be successful at the next level.

Informative Assessments

In an effort to better support students as they prepare for college and career, the federal ESSA legislation has outlined expectations for state-level college and career readiness standards and plans. Through these standards, schools must incorporate efforts to expose students to career options and college pathways. A few popular ways to accomplish this are field trips to colleges and places of industry, goal planning, guest speakers, and online curricula that explores options for post-secondary education.

Encourage Outside Support

Support from resources outside of the school are crucial for a first-generation college student! Most families that are walking through the college application process for the first time underestimate the number of steps there are in the process and have difficulty navigating the financial aspects. Hosting multiple financial aid nights for parents, sending home scholarship information, and making resources such as links to college-planning websites and checklists are all ways to support families and students.

Individual Support

Even more important than outside supports are supports that schools can provide to individual students. Students need someone to sit with them to register for the SAT/ACT tests and then to coach them on how to prepare for the exam and what to take with them. They need to be familiarized with the timeline of preparing for applying to college and what to do before, during, and after acceptance.

They need to be taught the soft skills and management needed to be successful on campus, and, even more importantly, need coaching on how to apply for financial aid, when to send in their deposits, and to watch closely for upcoming deadlines. Simple missed deadlines are too often the reason first-generation students don’t make it to campus. Lastly, students need to know how to access helpful resources on their own, apps and websites that can guide them once they are on campus!

Being a first-generation student is tough but rewarding!

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