Who doesn’t love a success story of a first-generation college student who overcomes adversity and gets a degree? Kavitha Cardoza of the Washington Post writes about Christopher Feaster, a high school student in DC who lived in a homeless shelter for most of his life and was awarded $200,000 in college scholarships. It sounds like a perfect start to the story.

Unfortunately, Feaster dropped out of Michigan State University after a year.

The Pell Institute for Higher Education published a study titled Straight from the Source: What works for first-generation college students that explores the obstacles first-generation students face when preparing for college and during their freshman year. The study also highlights messages and services that increase the likelihood of successful college enrollment.

Among the findings: a lot of first-generation students aren’t aware of the financial and academic resources available to them. They don’t believe they can get into college given their family history, academic ability, or inability to pay for it. High student-to-counselor ratios in high school advising offices means limited support.

Key challenges:

1. Unpreparedness for the academic rigor of college coursework 

2. Acclimating students and parents to the college environment and expectations

3. Financial strain

Cardoza reports that “nearly one-third of students entering two-or four-year colleges in the United States each year are first-generation… and are far less likely to graduate” than their peers. Only 40% of first-generation students are expected to graduate.

According to the study, first-generation students often weren’t ready for the sudden increase in workload. First-generation students also described feeling insecure in their new environments. They were concerned about paying for college and didn’t know how to apply for financial aid.

On the bright side, students reported that college prep programs helped them navigate these challenges. Programs that offered academic prep services such as tutoring and summer bridge work helped minimize gaps in student preparedness. Interestingly, the study found that once in college, students were more likely to seek academic advice from their college prep program advisors than their college advisors.

Overall, the study found that students were most successful and confident in their abilities to succeed when communication between the prep program and the student was constant. Close relationships were positively correlated to the individual students’ success. It’s critical for college prep advisors to get in touch – and stay in touch – with first-generation students to help them achieve their college success stories.

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