Resources for First-Generation College Students

Freelance Writer

For first-generation college students, the road to a college degree is often uncertain, with potholes deep enough to deter even the most driven students. For Brenda Flores, 23, the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF), a unique college access program, provided a roadmap.

Without DSF, its scholarships, and the support it provided in high school and college, “I would not have gone to Metropolitan State University of Denver,” says Flores, who graduated in 2013 and now works as a processing associate at OppenheimerFunds.

“In high school, I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college during my first three years,” Flores recalls. “I was just kind of skeptical about it.” But during her senior year, DFS established a Future Center, a college resource hub, at her school. She was repeatedly encouraged to apply and advised about the application process, among other topics. “Without guidance, I would not have chosen wisely, [and now] I don’t have any debt,” she says.

Partnership agreements with colleges and technical schools ensure that DSF’s mostly first-generation, low-income, and ethnic minority scholars receive additional support services on campus. To date, the program has funded 3,900 scholarship recipients, “and 79% of every kid we have invested in, whether they kept our scholarship or not, have finished their degree or are still trying,” says Nate Easley, DSF’s Executive Director.

“This is my 26th year in the educational opportunity field, and I’ve never been in a situation where 32 college presidents are agreeing on outcome goals for a population of students that is about 87% low income, 80% first generation, and 80% ethnic minority,” says Easley. “What’s really important for our formula is using a need-based scholarship to leverage student behaviors. That’s the magic.”

So far, 500 students have graduated. To increase the number of graduates within a five-year period, part-time students will no longer be eligible for scholarships, Easley says.

DSF started as an ambitious mission for a school district with a poor record of sending its mostly low-income, ethnic minority students to college, much less seeing them graduate. It’s one of the effective initiatives offered nationwide to foster academic success among first-generation college students, who, as trailblazers for their families, navigate significant financial, cultural, and academic obstacles that make them four times more likely to drop out than their peers whose parents have college degrees.

According to a report by ACT and the Council for Opportunity in Education, 52% of first-generation 2013 high school graduates who took the ACT exam met none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, compared to 31% of all ACT-tested graduates who did not meet any of the benchmarks.

Students whose parents did not attend college may also lack the support and guidance that is critical for their success. That’s where innovative approaches to help them transition to college and find support once enrolled come in. (As it stands, the average six-year graduation rate at four-year institutions in the United States is just 63%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—if the transition from high school to college were easy, that number would probably be higher!)

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond is among the institutions helping first-generation students improve academic performance and classroom management skills with promising results. In 2006, its leadership decided to “treat all freshmen as if they were first-generation students,” says Seth Sykes, VCU’s Associate Vice Provost of Academic Services in the University College, which focuses on a cohesive core curriculum and a centralized support system for incoming freshmen. Services for students include advising, tutoring, writing assistance, orientation, and organized group study sessions. In addition, the University College served as the home for Focused Inquiry, a newly implemented year-long course that emphasized critical skill areas for thriving in a college setting.

“Rather than single-out a specific group for additional services, we decided that all students would benefit from intrusive advising and extensive learning support,” Sykes says. “As a result . . . we have been commended for increasing the graduation rates and closing the graduation rate gaps for African American and Hispanic students, many of whom are first-generation students.”

In 2012, Education Trust reports ranked VCU among the nation’s best for boosting graduation rates and closing the graduation rate gap for both black and Hispanic students between 2004 and 2010. VCU increased the graduation rate for black students from 34.5% in 2004 to 49.8% in 2010, about the same rate as white students. Graduation rates for Hispanic students rose by more than 20 points, from 25.9% in 2004 to 48.7% in 2010.

Another program helping demystify the college experience is College Summit, a national nonprofit that develops a corps of high school students to lead their peers to and through college. This year it is serving nearly 3,500 students at 10 high schools across Los Angeles and more than 50,000 nationwide in 15 states, according to Brian Rosenbaum, the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Southern California program.

Founded in 1996, College Summit partners with low-income schools to integrate a curriculum into existing classes that helps students meet milestones needed to go to college. But the students are not just learning from the teachers. The program uses positive peer pressure to serve as a recruiting tool, and it’s working. “The most influential person to a 17-year-old is what? Another 17-year-old,” says Rosenbaum. A number of seniors are trained to help develop a college-going culture in the schools. Eight out of 10 peer leaders enroll in college, and 65% of other students go—both rates higher than the 52% college enrollment rate for low-income students.

Positive word of mouth is the idea behind “I’m First,” a new online project featuring video testimonials by successful first-generation students. The site features advice from graduates and a database of the Center for Student Opportunity’s 168 partner colleges. Users can search by location, financial aid, popular majors, and summer bridge programs, among other criteria.

Programs such as DSF and College Summit help high school students step by step with standardized test preparation, as well as college and financial aid applications.

In partnership with Denver Public Schools, DSF operates Future Centers inside 16 Denver high schools, reaching about 75% of seniors. Each Future Center has a full-time DSF College Advisor who helps students figure out appropriate pathways to getting a postsecondary degree and how that pathway ties to a career. They also help identify financing, “which is a big deal,” Easley says. “One thing that scares kids about college right now is cost.”

The power of the scholarship is more than just a way to reduce the financial barriers to college—it serves as a mechanism to leverage critical support for each student. For example, DSF applicants must apply for three additional scholarships and the FAFSA. This strategy has resulted in more than $206 million in scholarships. Also, the Scholarship Policy requires students to use the strategic support services detailed in written partnership agreements in order to renew their scholarships each year.

For Flores, DSF provided the support needed to stay motivated and get back on track when she became distracted. “A lot of the students are first generation, and picking up a shift here and there sounds good for extra money, [although] you should be focusing on class,” she says. “There was a time when I was in that situation. I was working way too many hours, and I wasn’t getting good grades.

“One of the career counselors sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, let’s make a budget so you don’t have to work and miss class and sacrifice your study time.’ So they get deep down in those issues we first-generation college students face,” Flores says. “That was a huge thing getting me through college. It took five years, but I got through. Just the support on campus was a tremendous help.”

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