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Peers Providing Support to Vulnerable First-generation Students

First-generation college students are getting help to succeed on campus from an unlikely source: one another.

A growing number of colleges and universities are accelerating efforts to identify, recruit, retain, graduate and track the professional success of students who are the first in their families to attend college. The Institute for Higher Education Policy noted research that shows that greater involvement from the faculty and continuous one-on-one faculty mentoring relationships with first-generation students are critical to their college success.

While no one tracks nationally how many first-generation students enter college each year, there’s evidence their ranks are surging, said University of Pennsylvania higher education professor Marybeth Gasman, who heads the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Penn.

Most first-generation college students are low-income, minority or children of immigrants, said Gasman, who has authored a number of studies and books on colleges and universities that largely serve Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, African-Americans and other students of color. From 1980 to 2011, total undergraduate enrollment increased 73 percent, according to the U. S. Department of Education. During that same period, minority enrollment rose 300 percent. At the same time, the United States is rapidly headed toward becoming a majority minority nation.

“We really need to be focused on low-income and first-generation students,” Gasman said. “It’s good for the economy. It’s good for our international standing.”

Figuring It Out

Michelle Gilliard, an expert in higher education and workforce readiness, said that, while the transition to higher education is difficult for all young people, it is especially so for first-generation college students.

“They may get the emotional encouragement from their families, but they don’t have people who can tell them the intricacies of how college works, of how it all fits together,” said Gilliard, a partner at Venture Philanthropy Partners, which works with and invests in programs aimed at helping low-income and first-generation students complete college.

Meanwhile, the affluent have a “history and a social milieu” that gives them a leg up when it comes to college, Gilliard said.

“They (wealthy parents) can and often do spend thousands of dollars to send their children to private and boarding schools and hire personal admissions counselors,” she said.

Those counselors can help more privileged families select the right institutions, choose an appropriate curriculum and pay for the right kind of support and training to help their children perform well on the ACT and SAT college entrance exams, she added.

Gilliard oversaw a $4.2 million 2009-2012 Wal-Mart Foundation initiative that gave $100,000 grants to each of 30 minority-serving colleges to build on and create programs to provide academic support for first-generation college students. She said faculty engagement and helping students get connected to the right resources on campus are both important to college success.

Unless our performance with low-income and students of color improves, “we can’t meet President Obama’s 2020 goal” of once again leading the world in college completion rates, said Gasman.

“It’s a matter of equity and moral good to give low-income and students of color an opportunity,” she added. “It ends up helping everyone.”


Helping Our Own

Scores of colleges are setting up programs to provide support for first-generation students, but also gaining traction on campuses nationwide are peer-to-peer programs led by first-generation students who themselves are extending a hand academically and socially to others who come from similar backgrounds and home situations.

These programs are often an outgrowth of partnerships that colleges and universities have put in place with a network of schools, educational organizations and nonprofits aimed at helping low-income students and students of color realize their dream of completing a college education. And the programs join an arsenal of initiatives that U.S. colleges have undertaken to increase the enrollment of first-generation and low-income college students and boost their financial aid. Among them are summer programs, such as Norfolk State University’s S.P.A.R.C. (Spartans Preparing for Academic Rigor in College) four-week Summer Bridge program, that bring newly admitted freshmen to campus before the school year begins for a few weeks of college immersion and classes to ease the transition from high school to college.

At Kenyon College, a highly selective liberal arts school in Ohio, its Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP) brought in 24 students of color this past summer for intensive writing and data-analysis coursework, said A. Chris Kennerly, associate dean of students and director of Multicultural Affairs. Students who participate in KEEP are paired with mentors from the faculty or administration and are tracked throughout their college careers.

They receive academic and career planning advice as well as access to peer-tutoring.


Other examples of how colleges are serving low-income and first-generation students:


  • Chief Dull Knife College, a tribal community college in Montana, is using a combination of faculty engagement, computerized tutoring and peer feedback to help students conquer mathematics courses.
  • At Morehouse College, the all-male, historically Black university in Atlanta, a peer-led teaching and tutoring program is credited with increasing the number of students going into the sciences and finding success in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses.
  • Participants in Norfolk State’s summer program become part of the HBCU’s Breakfast Club, a yearlong faculty-to-student mentoring program that meets about once a month at 7 a.m. so that students can huddle with their college mentors to get career advice and professional development guidance and hear from special guests.


Planting the Idea

As a fifth-grader in Washington, D.C., Nathan Woods knew he wanted to be a lawyer, but when he was told he would need to go to college, he said he asked, “What’s that?” No one in his family had even attended college.

His story demonstrates that college might not be even part of the career conversation at home for first-generation and low-income students. Woods was selected to attend a Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter school as a fifth-grader. KIPP schools start the conversation about college in elementary and middle schools, and leadership and faculty make sure students tackle a competitive curriculum. After middle school, Woods accepted a scholarship to Woodberry Forest, a boarding school in rural central Virginia, and now he is a senior at Syracuse University.

The KIPP Through College program last year selected Woods to be part of its national ambassador program, where he meets regularly with 32 other KIPP graduates attending Syracuse to ensure that they are “succeeding together.” As a KIPP ambassador, Woods has reached out to faculty and administrators to encourage them to set up financial aid workshops, arrange mock job interviews, create internships and make sure that students are career-ready.

Tevera Stith, who heads KIPP DC, says, “We want to make sure we have people on the ground at these colleges who can help our students with whatever comes up.”

Woods, 21, acknowledges that the ambassador role has “added a lot of responsibility to my workload,” but said, “it’s important to make the partnerships between KIPP and the colleges work.”


Forming Bonds

KIPP has partnerships with 40 colleges that have agreed to bring in up to 12 to 15 first-generation and low-income students from its programs per year to aid the students’ academic and social integration, said Director of Public Affairs Steve Mancini.

“By clustering them, they have a better chance for success than being a one-off,” Mancini says. KIPP’s commitment is that those graduates of its public charter schools will be academically ready; be the right match for colleges that are doing the best job with graduation rates; have the grit and character to withstand the rigors of college; and be the beneficiaries of KIPP ambassadors who mentor younger students who come from similar demographics.

Colleges are banking on the maxim that there is strength in numbers by recruiting and teaching students in groups. This helps stave off the feeling of isolation that sometimes surfaces among low-income and first-generation students on campus.

At Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate has hovered around 77 percent for the past few years. However, for students enrolled in its innovative Learning in Communities for Success LinCs program, the retention rate is around 95 percent, according to Denver Malcom, director of the Academic Success Center.

The program, designed for first-generation college students and initially funded as part of the Walmart initiative, is now serving its fifth cohort of 25 students who enter the program as freshmen and are enrolled together in three team-taught courses: University 101 (a freshman orientation course that covers the basics of college life, including time management, note-taking and campus resources); English 101, freshman English composition; and Math 111.

“The faculty work together and across disciplines to make sure the students get a good start,” Malcom said. “They put a lot of work into making sure that they are able to remain here and be successful.”

Every LinCs student gets a peer mentor who has gone through the program, someone who “knows what the students face,” in addition to participating in tutorial services and cultural enrichment activities. Malcom said the students who are invited to apply for the LinCs programs are those who have been accepted to the college but whom admissions counselors consider most at risk of dropping out. Most are on financial aid. A handful has done so well academically after their first semester that they are now on full scholarship and part of the Honors College.

Deontez Wimbley, 21, a junior majoring in psychology at Claflin, is not only a first-generation college student, but he is the first in his family to graduate from high school. Growing up in the Atlanta area, he said he always knew he would go to college but had little idea what it would take to get there.

He said he graduated from high school in Stone Mountain, Ga., with a mediocre GPA but decent SAT scores and was admitted to Claflin and invited to apply to LinCs. “Thanks to the program, I’ve really been able to turn the tide academically,” said Wimbley. “Taking those classes with the same group of students felt like family, like a community, and we got strength from each other.”

He said the bonds he formed with his peers helped him get into Honors College, and the rest of his education is now covered by scholarships.


Achieving the Goals

At Franklin & Marshall College, some 70 rising seniors from high schools around the country this past summer participated in a three-week F&M College Prep program. The highly selective, small, liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pa., gives the high school seniors the opportunity to learn together what the college experience is all about. Students in the program spend two hours a day, four days a week in courses taught by faculty members and complete a research project.

“There’s an urgency to build pipelines of college success to far more low-income students attending our educational institutions,” says F&M President Daniel Porterfield. He noted that only about 6 percent of students attending the nation’s 193 most selective colleges are low-income. From 2008 to 2011, 80 percent of high-achieving, low-income students did not apply to a single selective college, according to The College Board. “It’s not right,” Porterfield said.

It’s an issue that First Lady Michelle Obama addressed in remarks in November to students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C. She cited her own experience of being chided by teachers for aiming at Princeton when she was applying to colleges. She said they told her she was setting her sights too high, but that their negativity only fueled her ambition and that getting into Princeton was one of the “proudest days” of her life.

In his 2 1/2 years as president of Franklin & Marshall, Porterfield said the university has partnered with a number of secondary-school networks and groups like the Posse Foundation, KIPP and College Match to find low-income and first-generation students of color who are well matched to the scholastic competitiveness of other students at F&M.

“We’re recruiting these super-strong students, and we don’t feel they need a huge amount of remediation or classes within classes on our campus,” he said.

The data back him up. The percentage of first-generation and low-income students attending F&M has climbed from 14 percent in 2010 to 21 percent this year. The grade-point average for those students at the end of their freshman year was 3.05 versus a 3.1 for the freshman class as a whole.

“Every student we accept is meritorious,” Porterfield said. “Our first-generation population has doubled, our retention rate is higher, and their grades are on par with our overall average.”

Despite efforts by colleges to recruit them and support them academically, some first-generation students still find it intimidating to live on campuses where few students look like them or come from similar economic and educational backgrounds. At Kenyon College, Yosselin Melgar, 21, a junior majoring in economics, said she experienced “class shock” when she arrived on campus as a freshman and a first-generation college student. Melgar, who was born in El Salvador, graduated from the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a small charter school.

“Most of the students here come from a completely different social economic background,” she said.

She joined a peer-to-peer group called R.E.A.C.H., which connects first-generation and students of color and helps them feel at home on a campus where they are a minority. She was paired with an upper-class mentor who came from a similar background and with whom she could bond. Now she is one of two coordinators for R.E.A.C.H., which serves about 60 students on campus.

“I feel a lot more comfortable sharing my background with someone who has had similar experiences and with whom I can bond,” said Melgar, who described R.E.A.C.H., short for “Recognizing Each Other’s Ability to Conquer the Hill,” as both an academic and social safety net.

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