A Family First
Nontraditional students often come from families that aren't attuned to the atmosphere and demands of higher education. Here are some ways to help first-generation students spread their wings.
By Sandra R. Sabo
Growing up in the tough and impoverished streets of East Nashville, Tennessee, Eric Polk always stood out because he liked to read. Encouraged by his mother, grandmother, and an English teacher, he scored an after-school internship with a community organization, where mentors helped him through the seemingly overwhelming task of completing college applications and financial aid forms.
"I didn't want to spend my life in poverty, in the ghetto," Polk says. "Education was my ticket out of there." And he did leave, becoming the first student from his high school to attend Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Horatio Alger stories'of young boys achieving success after less-than-promising starts'have long been a staple of American literature and legend. But Eric Polk's acceptance into college represented just the first step toward the different life he envisioned. To achieve the "happy ending" of earning a degree, he still needed to master the financial, academic, and social aspects of college'all formidable challenges for someone completely unfamiliar with the higher education system.
Taking a New Flight Path
Kathleen Cushman, a New York City-based researcher and writer, shared Polk's story and its implications with attendees at NACUBO's recent Student Financial Services Conference, in Savannah. As the kick-off speaker for the two-day conference, Cushman set the stage for the sessions that followed, which focused on topics such as changing demographics and workforce needs, student aid policy, compliance with new regulations and legislation, and techniques and processes to improve financial services provided to students.
Increasingly, Cushman emphasized, the students requiring those services are considered nontraditional. They may have worked before enrolling'or juggled a job and classes at the same time. They may have their own or an extended family to support. And, given immigration patterns in recent years, even those who take the traditional route of entering college right after high school are more likely to be the first in their families to pursue additional education.
"The more you know about these students, the more you as a business officer can help them along the path to a college diploma that can change their lives," said Cushman, cofounder of the nonprofit organization What Kids Can Do. She's also the author of First in the Family: Advice About College From First-Generation Students' - Your College Years (Next Generation Press, 2006), a book and DVD discussion guide in which first-generation college students outline the obstacles they faced and identify their strategies for success.
Overcoming Tough Obstacles
Based on her research, including hundreds of interviews with first-generation students, Cushman said barriers to higher education fall into three general categories.
1. Finances. Nearly one in four first-generation students drops out before year two of college, compared to 1 in 10 students with a college-educated parent. Money is often the reason, said Cushman.
Tuition increases, coupled with flat or declining family incomes, have put more pressure on all students to find ways to pay for college. First-generation students are more likely to come from low- or middle-income families that are unable to afford tuition even if it's offset by grants and scholarships. Cushman noted that college costs represent 60 percent of a low-income family's annual earnings, compared to 5 percent of a high-income family's earnings.
The discrepancy between costs and ability to pay pushes first-generation students to work, often full time, while still carrying a full course load. In fact, about 30 percent of students work full time while enrolled in college. Their paychecks have to cover not only the costs of tuition and books but, in many cases, household expenses as well.
"When the financial aid package assumes that families can borrow with a Federal PLUS loan, sometimes the parents don't qualify [for such loans] because of their income," explained Cushman. "That means students have to pay the family's contribution in their financial aid package as well as the student's contribution."
She added: "When a first-generation or low-income student comes to you about, say, an overdue bill, there's invariably a complicated human story behind it." For example, research has shown that first-generation students from Asian and Hispanic families tend to be averse to borrowing money to pay for higher education. Some students may have parents who don't understand English well enough to make sense of the many financial aid terms and conditions. Others simply do not know where or how to seek assistance.
2. Academics. Overall, one third of students arrive at college in need of remedial work. Students at the lower end of the economic spectrum, where college preparation is likely to be inadequate, can have even more ground to make up compared to their higher-income peers. Unaccustomed to the amount of reading or homework required, first-generation college students may feel discouraged from the start and quickly fall far behind.
"First-year students often find themselves in large introductory lecture courses, where no one notices that they're struggling until it's too late," said Cushman. "Even first-generation students who were top in their high school classes often tell me that they can't keep up." It doesn't help, she noted, that valuable study time, not to mention sleep, is often sacrificed to meet the demands of a full-time job.
3. College community. "Low-income and first-generation students simply don't get the chance to live the life most people envision when they think about college," Cushman observed. For example, belonging to campus organizations, going away for spring break, or simply hanging out with friends rarely make the list of must-do activities.
Typically, first-generation students can't afford campus housing, and their work schedules often conflict with social opportunities. Too, many students must fulfill responsibilities to their families, such as babysitting younger children, preparing meals, and doing other household chores while their parents work.
Guidance for Staying on Course
Take a student who is feeling academically overwhelmed and isolated from life on campus, then sprinkle in financial worries, family responsibilities, and job pressures. Top it all off with sleep deprivation, and you have a prime candidate for poor grades'which, in turn, can lead to a loss of a scholarship or other aid.
"Caught in this bind, your students may make academic decisions for financial reasons and greatly reduce their chances of getting a college degree," said Cushman. They may, for example, take classes that fit their work schedule rather than classes they're interested in or need for their major. They might pass up unpaid internships that could help them chart a career path and gain valuable experience. Or they may scale back the number of classes they take without a clear plan for resuming full-time student status.
The danger, of course, is that such students will drop out completely. If that happens, said Cushman, "Your institution has to start all over with a new student, instead of reaping the reward of a student who persists and earns a degree. More important, our larger society loses a member of the college-educated workforce'one of the innovators, educators, and professionals we need to thrive as a nation."
Beyond better understanding the challenges that first-generation students face, how can your institution support them? In small breakout sessions following her presentation, Cushman joined conference attendees in brainstorming strategies that may help first-generation students persevere and succeed in the collegiate environment. They suggest that institutions could:
About 25 percent offirst-generation students don't make it to their sophomore year of college.
Source: Measuring Up 2004 (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2004).
In 2000-01, college costs represented about 60 percent of the total income earned annually by a low-income family.
Source: America's Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg (Century Foundation Press, 2004).
Nearly one in three students(30 percent) works full time while enrolled in college.
Source: Student Aversion to Borrowing: Who Borrows and Who Doesn't (Institute for Higher Education Policy and Excelencia in Education, December 2008).
Establish a connection with high schools. One community college, for example, offers a one-credit college preparation class to high school students. Another trains volunteers to visit high schools, where they distribute information to students and explain to parents the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Yet another invites local high school students to participate in Financial Aid Day and get help filing their FAFSA.
Demystify financial aid. Hold open forums to discuss types of aid, application and renewal procedures, and places to go for assistance. Speak in straight terms, not acronyms. "Remember, we're talking about students who don't have family members who can guide them through financial analyses or help them through a financial crisis," Cushman emphasized.
Participate in orientation. To put a human face on the bursar's office, volunteer to help with registration and get-acquainted activities. For example, one college invites its bursar as a special guest to address freshmen during a First-Year Experience program.
Invite students' families to experience the campus. "From attending football games or film series to using the swimming pool, families who participate in campus activities start building the sense that college is an important way to change the student's life and even their own lives," said Cushman. Family participation also deepens the student's pride and involvement in the institution.
Promote academic internships and types of on-campus jobs. By working with professors, students can earn tuition money while enriching their studies and strengthening their identity as scholars. Other types of on-campus jobs may offer students some quiet time for studying and negate the need for commuting.
Have a suite of solutions in place. You might, for example, have a standing committee to evaluate student requests for emergency aid or to make grants targeting adult students. One community college ties the release of loans to students' completion of a financial literacy course, while another offers an online financial literacy class. Some colleges provide extra financial aid during freshman year so students don't have to work full time while they're becoming acclimated to the demands of college life.
Stop the runaround. Integrate offices and improve customer service so students don't have to visit multiple offices to solve problems. One small college empowers its staff to negotiate with students to get bills paid. Others offer payment plans to address current or past-due balances. One-on-one financial counseling can be particularly helpful to students who may not have adults in their family who understand options for financing their educational expenses.
Develop a peer mentoring network. This provides new students with a built-in support system, enabling them to ask questions and gather advice of other students who have been in a similar situation.
"All of these support strategies have one main purpose'to encourage students to think of themselves primarily as college students, as opposed to parents, caregivers, or wage earners," said Cushman. Helping first-generation students through that identity crisis has a big payoff: National Center for Education Statistics research confirms that providing such institutional supports, especially early in the college experience, increases the likelihood that at-risk students will earn their degrees.
SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.