Sunday, January 11, 2009

First Generation Students

Much of my IR activity lately has centered on first generation students. My former and current institutions both rely on these populations for recruitment to some degree. Philosophically, this is where my heart is too--there's a special joy in seeing a student's success who is disadvantaged by circumstances. In one case, I had a student in MAT 100 (remedial algebra) discover that she really liked the subject, went on to become a graduate of the mathematics program. She has a rewarding professional career now.

The competition in higher education for the (apparently) best and brightest students can be pernicious. There seems to be an economic principle at work, whereby the best of anything gets bid up in the auction of public opinion to irrationally enthusiastic heights. This seems to happen with physical beauty (there has to be a 'most beautiful' man or woman to sell magazines), the financial markets (first tech stocks were beautiful, then real estate, for a moment commodities, now all is dross). I have opined probably too frequently that we over-value some applications and undervalue others. Shortly I'll have the opportunity to put this theory into practice and see to what extent this is true.

Low income, first-generation students are the topic of this article in from June, 2006. I came across it in a search for "higher_ed". It's a couple of years old, but I can't imagine the situation has improved for this group of potential college students. The statistics given are dismal. The author Doug Lederman speculates about causes:

A broad mix of factors — financial, cultural and academic — may account for the underperformance of low-income first-generation students, the Pell Institute’s data show. The students come into college with many more of the risk factors that researchers have widely embraced as diminishing college success, including delaying entry into postsecondary education after high school, attending college part time, working full-time while enrolled, having dependent children, being a single parent, and having a GED. The average first-generation/low-income student has three such risk factors, while the average student who is neither first generation nor low income has one.

Once they are in college, they are more likely to have unmet financial need than are other students. They also work significantly more than other students, and those who work more are less likely to have earned degrees and to remain enrolled six years after entering [...]
Of these factors, only the financial aid factor sounds familiar to me. But there are cultural factors that show up in our research that are also detrimental to success. New first generation students report less family support, more family problems, and more dependence on families for financial support. It's clear from their responses on the CIRP that they don't really understand what a libearl arts college is, and they're attracted for other reasons, such as proximity and size. The publication Postsecondary Opportunity documents the long decline in need-based aid for such students. The real double-whammy is that they don't have much money to begin with, and their academic preparation does not admit them much talent-based money. The gap between need-based aid and tuition is a big part of the problem.

Closing the article is a set of recommendations to help these students succeed.
  • Strengthening academic preparation for college, such as greater access to quality college prep classes and better information about college “gateway” courses while students are still in high school.
  • Increasing financial aid for college.
  • Improving transfer rates to four-year colleges, by strengthening transfer counseling and developing favorable articulation policies and agreements.
  • Easing the transition to college, through better bridge/orientation programs and special programs for at-risk populations.
  • Encouraging engagement on the college campus, including by creating better work study policies to let students work on campuses.
The first of these is the hardest. The rest are practical, and line up well with the strategies I'd like us to consider (and in fact have begun discussing in strategy meetings). Unstated in the article is that there are good students in this population--students that would work hard, eagerly consume the liberal arts product, and make any institution proud. Sorting out which is which is part of the solution--there's only so much need-based institutional aid to go around. It will be critical to be able to winnow out the applicants with the best chance for success. To do otherwise is to doom poor students to wasting time and incurring debt, as well as closing the door to a better student.

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