Thursday, December 18, 2008

Challenges with First Generation Students

We've run an attitude and behavior survey for the last three years, which distinguishes on one item whether or not a student's parents attended college. Testing means on the other items using this as the key yields some interesting characteristics. Sample size is around 350 of each type.

First-generation students are less likely to be happy with campus conditions, quality of instruction, use the library, like the general education curriculum, read for fun, have a mentor, or say that tuition was worth it. They have a lower assessment of their thinking and communications skills. They are more likely to cite detrimental family influences on studying, say that money problems might cause them to drop out, and have chosen the college as their first choice. The picture of first-generation students is one of generally unprepared for the financial, culture and intellectual requirements of the academy.

Plans to deal with this division are well under development. Interestingly, I got an email today about a similar plan already implemented at Manchester College, a private school in Indiana. I found the article online here. The elements are the same as the one we are developing: assure parents and students of a successful transition to and through college into the workplace (or graduate school). Their students are probably more prepared than ours, judging by their graduation rate. We have the additional challenge of bridging the cultural capital gap for the first-generation students.

Elements of a successful plan probably include addressing marketing (internal and external), adjusting financial aid policies to include continuous review, academic support services, adjustment of the curriculum (to rebrand the liberal arts, in our case), and career development. In our case, it's particularly hard to market a liberal arts product to first-generation students who have no idea what those words mean. A major part of the plan is repackaging those ideas in a more understandable way. It also requires an honest re-think on our part, asking if we are really delivering what the implied promises are.

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