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Empowering First-Generation College Students: The Role of Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs)


This month, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) released a report titled

Supporting First-Generation College Students through Classroom-Based Practices.  The research in the report was supported by a grant from the Walmart Foundation.

Although the report focused on first-generation college students, the most interesting aspect of it me for me was that it concentrated on the role that MSIs play in supporting, engaging and empowering these students. The Walmart-funded, IHEP-led project involved 30 MSIs, including 12 historically black colleges and universities, 12 Hispanic-serving institutions and six tribal colleges and universities.

IHEP designed the project to help MSIs identify programs unique to their first-generation students and to help develop faculty-driven strategies to improve student achievement on their campuses. Of note, the project did not include any Asian-American & Pacific Islander serving institutions (a fourth type of MSI); most likely because these institutions were not designated by the federal government at the time the grant was awarded.

There are several lessons to be learned from this report on MSIs when it comes to educating first generation students. First, all strategies for success must be supported by faculty members in order to be truly successful.  The greatest learning impact on students takes place in the classroom and faculty members control this space. The report suggests putting faculty members in leadership roles related to first generation initiatives. Getting faculty buy-in is key and this approach works better than imposing rules or mandates.

Second, it is essential that programs for first-generation students use supplemental instructors and peer tutors to bolster performance in the classroom. Having more guidance and perspectives in the classroom allows for ample active and engaged learning.

Third, the report suggests that the best approach to developmental course work for first-generation students is to fast track the course and embed the courses along side credit-bearing courses. This approach reduces stigma and moves students through their undergraduate program more efficiently and effectively.

Fourth, the research tells us that students learn more when course material is culturally relevant and applied to real-life situations. As such, the report suggests that faculty members may need professional development to aid in this strategy as they are rarely taught to teach in this way. The more hands-on and tangible examples, the better when working with first-generation students; they learn at a higher rate when they can apply problems and coursework to their known environment.

Fifth, the report calls for more rigorous institutional research and evaluation in order to track the performance of first-generation students. The MSIs that participated in this study were encouraged to collect more data on students and to make decisions based on this data.

Sixth, based on the research conducted at MSIs, IHEP urges higher education leaders and faculty members to think about success more broadly. Too often colleges and universities only define success in terms of test scores and grades. These measures are important, but there are noncognitive variables that capture self-confidence, engagement and self-efficacy among first-generation college students. These measures are valuable to those interested in improving student learning and increasing degree attainment.

Lastly, the report reminds colleges and universities, especially MSIs, that when they have success among their first-generation students, they have to publicize the success widely. This is important for two reasons: publicity attracts additional students to the institution. and it changes the way that MSIs are viewed nationally. There is much to be learned from the hard work of MSIs, but if these institutions don’t toot their own horns more often, few people will have the chance.

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