Common Denominators: College Success Factors Among Minority and First-Generation Students

by
Director of Operations, The Choice Program, The Shriver Center of University of Maryland, Baltimore County

From applying to enrolling to graduating, college is tough. Awesome, life changing, and totally worth it, but tough. For students without adequate support systems in place, it can be even tougher. That struggle can often be found amongst first-generation and multicultural students. Eric Ford, Director of Operations for The Choice Program, wanted to explore the reasons why some students do so well in their college journey and others stumble, so he spoke to four college graduates to get to the bottom of their shared experiences—and what common factors might’ve contributed to their success.

After several discussions with family members, Barry decided he wanted something better in life and was going to enroll in community college. He picked a date to go enroll and as each day passed, Barry tried to build confidence for this huge undertaking. No one in his immediate family had graduated from college. But Barry knew it was time to embark on his new journey.

The day came to visit campus and enroll, and as Barry approached the administration building, he almost immediately felt overwhelmed. It was a very busy day at the school, and he had no idea where to start. Barry entered the building and walked toward an office titled “Student Support.” As he watched other students and staff enter and leave the office—some smiling, some appearing frustrated—he finally got his nerve up to ask for help. Barry approached the desk of a woman who was busy typing on her computer and said, “Excuse me, ma’am. What do I have to do to start taking classes?” Without even looking up, she cut him off, “You are in the wrong place. You need to start at the building on the left on the third floor, fourth office past the elevators.” Taken aback by this response, Barry exclaimed, “Can you just help me? I’m trying to enroll in college,” and began to walk away. Just as he was leaving, another woman said, “I’ll help you” and escorted Barry to the right building while explaining the next steps he needed to take.

Barry was grateful that this unexpected ally spoke up and supported his admission process. This woman quite literally may have changed the course of his life. Barry was able to enroll and complete community college, then transfer to a four-year institution where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He also attended another university where he received a doctoral degree. Barry is now a professor at the four-year institution where he earned his bachelor’s.

The story above is true and reflective of just one of the challenges first-generation college students face when trying to enroll in college. Some are able to overcome these obstacles while other succumb to them. If they do start, they may quit due to the cumbersome process unless they meet that unexpected ally to guide them through. So many young adults aspire to attend college but just don’t know where to start, and those coming from historically underrepresented populations face additional challenges.

Intrigued by why some multicultural and first-generation students “make it” and some don’t, I interviewed several individuals who at a minimum had completed college through the bachelor’s level. I wondered what supportive measures were necessary to facilitate graduation. Specifically, what did the interviewees have in common that led to their college success? If that could be identified, then maybe those who don’t have adequate support could use those common denominators as a road map to success. In addition, the finding could help people who want to assist those with little support, giving them a better understanding of what the issues are and how they can be overcome. The results were interesting.

Rising to high expectations

Three out of the four graduates interviewed said parents or other family members set the expectation that attending college was nonnegotiable. Although the effectiveness of setting high expectations is a bit cliché, most of the graduates this had an impact on when they first knew they wanted to attend college. “My parents are very big on education. I think it was always in the background of my mind I was going to college,” said Grad #2. “It starts with expectancies created by your environment that are external and become internalized by you developmentally. Those things stick with you.” Setting high expectations combined with offering support creates resiliency—once the proverbial bar is raised and people are given the tools they need to succeed. “My father set the bar for the men in the family so we knew we had to go to college,” said Grad #4. This was a clear factor in the participants’ decision to attend college, and they used these high expectations to garner strength when facing obstacles.

If the expectation is not set by family members to attend college, this could have an impact on not just whether or not they graduate from college but if they even apply. Three of the four participants were quick to respond with conviction that there was an expectation, sometimes latent, that they attend college.

Using family members as an example

Modeling can be a powerful way to change behavior. Three of four interviewees mentioned a close family member attending college prior to them as a motivating factor in their decision to attend college. This relates to the high expectations mentioned above because older family members attending college can create a legacy. Grad #4 said, “My dad graduated from Morgan State University, and one of my brothers graduated from Morgan and another brother attended Morgan but did not finish, so Morgan State is like our family school.” Not only were expectations vocalized in this family but the fact that several family members attend the same school created an unspoken expectation that men in this family attend college.

Observing family members going through the college process demystifies college for African American males in many ways. “African American males and Latino males don’t have a support system. Many don’t have people who have gone before them to show them ‘this is how you do it.’ That has everything to do with it. A whole lot of people don’t even start because of that situation,” said Grad #3. Seeing someone close to you attend college takes the abstract and makes it concrete.

“Having an older sister was nice to see how she went through the process,” said Grad #2. “With her it was a trial-and-error sort of thing. . . . We actually all went to Colgate; my sister and I overlapped by two years, but my younger brother started the year after I graduated.” The importance of having a family member as a model for attending college cannot be understated. Not only does it make college acceptance and graduation a reality, but parents and families acquire a baseline of knowledge regarding how the college application process works. Being able to navigate financial aid applications, college applications, campus tours, and speaking with college staff with confidence makes a huge difference. Grad #4 added, “ I knew in high school [I would attend college] even before I was considering it because my dad went to the University of Maryland, Baltimore City Community College, and Morgan State, so I attended all of his graduations. I already knew I was next up to graduate college.” African American males are at a disadvantage if no one before them in their family has graduated from or attended college. Experience is the best teacher.

Working with guidance counselors

One of the most traditional support systems for high school students interested in college is their guidance counselor. Three of four of the participants identified their counselor as having an important role in their college application process. Grad # 4 said, “My guidance counselor was very pivotal in helping all of the seniors and juniors in Dunbar High School get into college. As it got closer to the application deadlines, we were always in her office.”

Guidance counselors have a wealth of resources and can help students make informed decisions. And it’s important for aspiring students to reach out to them early to make sure they are on the right track. “I wrote a bunch of essays trying to figure out what my topic would be for each of the schools,” Grad #2 said. “I worked with my counselors to try to figure out where I wanted to go.”

These key staff members have the ability to match students with colleges based on skill set and need. Good guidance counselors ensure that students expand their options by applying to several schools. “I met with my guidance counselor . . . and applied to eight colleges and I was accepted to all eight. Two of those were community colleges and six four-year schools,” Grad #1 said. Counselors can also offer invaluable support for students applying for financial aid.

Facing family obstacles

Family factors can be barriers to applying for and graduating from college. Having to choose between personal goals and supporting one’s family is a precarious situation. “Sometimes black males feel like they are responsible for their families,” Grad #1 said. “If their father isn’t there, then they may have to take on one or two jobs to support mom, and mom endorses that as well. They become a ‘parentified’ child. You are a boy, but mom and siblings have expectations of you like a man.”

Other factors may also limit a student’s educational outcomes and opportunities, such as the poor health of an immediate family member. “At first I thought I wanted to stay close to home because my mom was ill during that time, and I wanted to be able to come back quickly if something happened. But I also wanted to see the United States and the East Coast, because I never had the chance,” Grad #2 said. Even those older students who are seeking a degree face family stressors that could interfere with them completing college. “For me it was family stuff, going through a divorce, or my mother would get sick. It was stuff like that that would distract me from my education focus,” said Grad # 3. Family stressors know no particular race, age, or gender, but they’re demonstrated factors that can affect college choice and completion.

Asking for help

Though it sounds so simple, simply knowing how, when, and who to ask for help can be a legitimate barrier for some. All four participants identified the ability to ask for help as an obstacle to graduation while in college. Asking for help can be viewed in three different ways: 1. having the courage to seek help; 2. knowing where to go for help; and 3. willingness to accept help.

Grad #1 said, “With black males, sometimes our egos get in the way, and we don’t want to ask for help. We want to appear like we know everything and it will figure itself out. I asked for as much as help as I could.” This seems to be particularly difficult for black males at predominately white institutions. There may be a factor of looking and feeling inferior. “You have to integrate a level of interdependence. It takes meeting someone in your class who is getting an A and for you get out of your comfort zone and ask if you can study with them,” added Grad #1. “They may not look like you or come from the same background as you, but you have to get out of your comfort zone.”

Although all four participants successfully graduated, each one indicated feeling vulnerable at some point in their college career. “My first semester freshman year was tough, and I was terrible at it and helped me get over my fear of asking for help,” said Grad #2. Grad #4 said, “Some people don’t reach out to support groups that are on campus. They don’t reach out to people who have already been through college. They go there and they are kind of lost and they don’t know how to ask for help.” All campuses have support programs available to help struggling students, and though this takes initiative on the part of the student, these programs must also be robustly supported and advertised.

Establishing a support system

College is challenging and something no one should go into alone. All four participants stressed the importance of establishing a support system while in school and benefitting from a supportive program. “Colgate has a program called OUS (Office of Undergraduate Studies) that reached out to low-income, first-generation college students during the summer,” said Grad #2. “I had never heard of it before. . . . You had to be disenfranchised, basically come from a low-income family but have the potential to be successful academically. My family had no income.”

Grad #3 spoke insightfully about the importance of possessing the skill of building your own support system: “Most of the things I’ve gotten in my life up until now is because of social intelligence. I am just naturally good with people. I’m good at building networks around me. I’m good at building support systems around me.” Although it’s good to have social intelligence, it’s also important for colleges to have supportive programs at every level of matriculation.

These programs exist in some form or another at most schools but because they have proven to be a key factor in college success, they should be expanded. Grad #4 stressed how he benefitted from a supportive program called the Granville T. Woods Scholarship Program. “A recruiter came to our school for this program, and I was one of the ones selected from my school. This program was pivotal because it gave me my first exposure to college. We traveled abroad to Italy for three weeks, free as a part of this program. All I had to do was get a passport and bring spending money. The program gave me a laptop, which I still use to this day.”

The Choice Program administered by The Shriver Center at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) is another such program. Through a partnership with Lakeland Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County seeks to become one of those support systems for first-generation college students. The Choice Program is just one component of a multifaceted partnership seeking to remove some of the many barriers faced by first-generation college students, and it has shown positive outcomes in its first year, exemplifying the shared responsibility between universities, public schools, and individuals in breaking down barriers to higher education.

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