Empowered Enrollment: 6 Ways to Help First-Generation Students Now

Bill Stamats

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First-generation students have always had unique sets of needs. Without a built-in network of college-savvy parents to guide them, the process of admissions and enrollment can seem overwhelming—and sometimes, overwhelmingly discouraging.  

Enter COVID-19. For first-generation families, the pandemic has added another layer of complexity to an already complex process. Strained household budgets, upended schedules, travel restrictions, and safety concerns have left many families questioning whether higher education is worth it.  

For colleges and universities, the charge is clear (and urgent): First-generation students and their parents need support now more than ever before. Here are six ways your institution can provide durable enrollment resources for first-generation students:  

1. Gather the right information 

At the point of application, does your school ask prospective students if they’re the first in their families to attend college? If not, consider making it a standard inquiry. This information is critical in anticipating the needs of the student as well as understanding the broader demographics of each incoming freshman class.  

2. …Then act on it 

Once you have the information, use it. With FERPA guidelines top of mind, welcome conversations not only students, but with their families. What questions do they have? Any concerns they might have? What factors might influence their decision-making?

In addition, every staff member involved in the enrollment process should exercise a bit more patience. This may include explaining next steps in greater detail, and working around language barriers to keep families informed and empowered.

3. Develop dedicated resources 

Additionally, first-generation families deserve resources customized to their specific needs. Depending on budget constraints, these might include:

  • An office dedicated to first-generation students (perhaps affiliated with the Department of Parent and Family Programs).
  • Bilingual staff members and/or volunteers who can work across departments (admissions, enrollment, financial aid, advising, etc.).
  • Printed marketing material in multiple languages to engage/inform students at every step of the recruitment and enrollment cycle.
  • Easy to find online resources that include financial aid information; tutoring and skills development programs; mentorship and peer support resources; FAQs; and a glossary of common terms, abbreviations, and acronyms.

4. Connect in communities  

Meet first-generation students and families where they are. Host enrollment presentations at churches, community centers, and public schools. Furthermore, make sure to staff these events appropriately and reserve time for extensive Q&A sessions.

5. Organize a mentorship program 

By the same token, engage current first-generation students and their parents to serve as mentors. This type support network is vital for families who have little experience navigating the complexities of enrollment, transitioning to life away from home, and accessing the full range of resources available.

6. Continue support post-enrollment 

According to a study published by the U.S. Department of Education, one-third of first-generation college students drop out within three years. Stem that tide by developing new ways to support first-generation students at every stage of their college career. In view of this, here are three low-cost ideas to get you started: 

  • Give first-generation students the opportunity to arrive early their freshman year. Even a slight head start allows families to explore campus more thoroughly, ask questions, and acquaint themselves with all the resources available.  
  • Organize first-generation peer groups. Junior and senior-level students can guide freshman and sophomores through pivotal “attrition-risk” periods (e.g., first round of finals, declaring a major, securing additional financial aid, balancing work and school, etc.). 
  • Collect as much information as possible on transfer students. Many first-generation students fall between the cracks when they transfer to a new institution Make sure you have a process in place to identify them and connect them to resources early. 

From strategy and planning to enrollment analysis, Stamats can help you design better services, build more effective processes, and convert prospects into enrolled students. Email us today for more information.

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