With college accessibility front and center, many institutions are actively seeking ways to support first-generation college students, and a report from NASPA and The Suder Foundation offers a comprehensive look at the best practices among colleges and universities supporting first-generation students.

While 80 percent of four-year institutions identify first-generation status upon admission, many aren’t doing enough to support first-generation students when they come to campus.

Paving the way to graduation

“First-generation students now make up a third of students nationwide, yet only 27 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree within four years of entering college, lagging far behind their continuing-generation peers,” says Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-generation Student Success. “While we know first-generation students are capable and making significant contributions, services for students are in flux across institutions today.”

Related: 5 ways our college is helping first-generation college students succeed

The report shows that institutions are inconsistent in sharing information across campus and monitoring outcomes for first-generation students–only 61 percent of four-year institutions track outcomes for these students; just 41 percent use data to inform support programs for them; and only 28 percent store information on first-generation status in systems that faculty can access and use.

An asset-based approach

The campuses that are most successful in supporting first-generation college students take an “asset-based approach” that recognizes the substantial contributions of first-generation students to academics and campus life–to developing programs that utilize the inherent strengths of first-generation students to improve belonging, efficacy, and overall outcomes.

Despite some progress and the emergence of best practices, supportive efforts are often hindered by lack of resources and inconsistent definitions for first-generation status across programs. Using a more uniform definition of “first-generation student” consistently on campuses would allow for recognition of the vast intersectionality between first-generation students, scaling of services, decreased duplicative efforts, and more accurate benchmarking.

Investing in resources is critical, but institutions also can improve services through better networking of existing support programs and offices. Florida State University and Chapman University both offer highly-successful, networked approaches to summer bridge programs for first-gen students. Florida State brings more than 400 students to campus for a one-week orientation, followed by six weeks of classes for credit, at no cost to the student. At Chapman, the bridge program focuses solely on transition and acclimation, and is provided for free to students through a partnership between residence life and the first-year experience.

Related: University taps mobile app to support first-generation students

Other institutions are providing wrap-around supports that may not require substantial funding or staffing, such as peer or alumni mentoring programs.

“We’re sending students into environments that were not created with them in mind. We don’t have to hold their hands every day, but we have to walk beside them. Not because they’re at a deficit, but because the institution is not nimble enough to effectively give them what they need to be successful,” says Kaye Monk-Morgan, assistant vice president for Academic Affairs and former director of TRIO Upward Bound Math Science Center at Wichita State University, in the report.

10 recommendations to support first-gen students

The report offers a number of recommendations, discussed in detail in the report, for institutions as they seek to establish or expand support for first-generation students:
1. Establish a common first-generation definition early
2. Mobilize for institutional change, not just another program
3. Engage a community of advocates to lead sustained change
4. Conduct a comprehensive institutional assessment of the first-generation student experience
5. Dismantle silos for a networked approach
6. Create systems for actionable data and advancing research
7. Foster an asset-based campus culture for first-gen students
8. Weigh the balance between broad reach and meaningful, sustained engagement
9. Offer appropriate first-generation involvement opportunities with intentionality
10. Consider post-completion engagement from the time of admission

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