Easing the Transition to Campus Life: Recruiting and Retaining First-Generation College Students

By: Jim Jenkins
Mar 21, 2017 11:05 AM ET
Jim Jenkins, CEO, Universities East, Sodexo North America

Easing the Transition to Campus Life: Recruiting and Retaining First-Generation…

Change is all around us, so when we think about college enrollment declining and federal funding decreasing, we know we have to think differently about how we can impact student recruitment and retention. An inspiring place to explore is how to impact recruitment and retention rates among first-generation students; it’s a group that, by nature, can help the academic sector expand its reach and further its mission – to teach and support the next generation of informed, educated and civically-responsible citizens. 

A first-generation student is the first person in their immediate family to experience postsecondary education. Approximately one-third of college students in the United States are first-generation students. These individuals know that attending college can lead to a better life, with improved employment prospects, a healthier lifestyle and a greater level of civic engagement. Many people assume that these students either do not pursue or postpone their college education because of financial insecurity. Although economic circumstances can be a contributing factor, with many first-generation students coming from low-income homes, these students also face a myriad of other issues on campus that make them apprehensive about attending college, including self-doubt, cultural changes and academic issues. In addition to these stressors, first-gen students may find it difficult adjusting to life away from their families; these individuals often feel an obligation to both the families they leave behind and the demands of college life, leading them to feel guilty about their decision to pursue higher education.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, many first-generation students facing these issues are minorities. A large percentage of first-gen students are African American or Hispanic; whereas only 25% of Caucasian and Asian American students are first-generation, 41% of African Americans and 61% of Hispanics are the first of their immediate family to go to college. Language can also present challenges, as 20% of first-generation students are from families where English is not the primary language.

Acknowledging that the future of academia is ever-changing, Dr. Javier Cevallos, president of Framingham State University, reiterated in the most recent chapter of the President to President series that  reaching first-generation and traditionally underrepresented students requires implementing programs to foster success for these students before they arrive at college and while they are enrolled. These programs include partnering with community colleges to ensure a smooth transition to four-year universities and working with underrepresented student groups to ensure they graduate from high school and set career or college-based goals.

Aside from implementing data-driven programs like those at Framingham State University, colleges must diversify how they accommodate first-generation and underrepresented students. One strategy is to encourage mentorship among campuses. Stanford University found that “students who took part in mentoring and coaching services were 10 to 15 percent more likely to advance to another year of college. The study also detected a four percentage-point increase in the graduation rates of coached students compared with students who weren’t coached.” Another strategy to encourage the enrollment and retention of first-gen students is to recognize when the “first-generation” label is appropriate. In some situations, these students feel hindered by this term because the stigma attached with being the first in the family to go to college can be perceived as negative. Conversely, in some situations the “first-gen” label unifies these students and encourages them to work together as they face similar situations.

Beyond these strategies, colleges and universities can work to be physically accommodating to first-generation students by fostering an environment in which they feel comfortable. For some students, this may be something simple, like tailoring campus dining programs to include food representative of the comforts of home. Another, more integrated approach to campus life is to foster a comfortable environment for all first-gen students by pairing them with other first-generation students either through student housing or in living-learning communities.

This means understanding when the “first-gen” label works and when it does not – when it hinders them as students and when it inspires them to overcome obstacles and instills pride in accomplishment. It also means creating an environment that equips students for success and helps them connect with mentors and other first-generation students who can share in their experiences. Moreover, it is vital to teach traditional college students – in this case, those whose parents attended college – to be accepting and proud of their peers who are navigating a sometimes challenging path to success.

Jim Jenkins is CEO of Universities East for Sodexo North America where he oversees more than 400 college and university partnerships. With $9.3 billion in annual revenues in the U.S. and Canada, Sodexo’s 133,000 employees provide more than 100 unique services that enhance performance at 9,000 client sites and improve Quality of Life for 15 million consumers every day.