- Higher education is awash in insider trading. Students who come from higher-income, second-, third-, and fourth-generation college-going households have a level of financial and social-emotional support that gives them a serious insider’s edge. Much like “wired” stock traders armed with more information than the public, these forewarned and highly prepared students make choices with better information and have built-in scaffolds that help them navigate the challenges most students face inside and outside the classroom. Indeed, our own work with Degree Map and College Scheduler is all about creating tools to even the playing field, so first-generation students can stand on the shoulders of other successful students and make significantly better choices around degree plans and schedules that sync with their often complicated lives.
- Belief is a barrier. Often first-generation students don’t believe they belong. It’s sometimes called the imposter syndrome—a student feeling like someone is soon going to discover they don’t really deserve to be there. Helping these students see themselves as belonging and likely to be successful is key. It’s why we’ve invested heavily in integrating mindset, goal-setting, and grit messaging into our “nudge work” with students.
- Life and logistics get in the way. Many first-generation students are working, often while taking care of children, extended family members, and/or parents. While other students are struggling with calculus problems, it’s the simple and often brutal math around housing, transportation, and even buying books that stands in the way of many first-generation students successfully completing courses or programs. Indeed, our second Community Insights Report shows that a significant percentage of students do not persist even though they are doing quite well academically, and life and logistics are often the culprit.
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Studies, reports, and thought pieces abound making the case that we need a more, and more diverse learners to be more successful getting to and through higher education if we’re going to meet our societal and economic aspirations in the years to come. As we strive to reach these “more, more, more” goals, we are confronted quickly with the challenges of first-generation students. These are students who are the first in their family to venture on a college or university pathway. In general, they have a harder time finishing what they start in higher education. Not surprisingly, innovations and ideas are flooding forth from academics, institutional leaders, associations, non-profits, foundations, and civic leaders on this issue. Moreover, we’re seeing institutions do the hard work of not only trying, but testing and tuning these efforts, and we’re learning a lot (see the good work of University of South Florida and Del Mar College for two examples). Some of the biggest challenges first-generation students are facing include: