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Two ways to help first-generation students navigate your college’s ‘hidden curriculum’

June 13, 2016

‘Just figure it out’

First-generation students get this message countless times during their college career.

Sometimes it’s through an advanced warning, like an email reminder to students remaining on campus over Thanksgiving that the dining halls will be closed and they’ll need to make other plans. Other times, it’s implicit in the way the college curriculum and community are structured; students interested in independent study must work with a faculty advisor to submit a proposed curriculum before registration opens. Didn’t you know that?

“Figure it out” moments like these are part of higher education’s hidden curriculum, a collection of undefined cultural norms, processes, and assumptions essential to navigating the academic, social, and administrative elements of college life.

How can pre-emptive messages help disadvantaged students navigate college more confidently? 

Students who attend a college-prep school or whose parents or siblings who have been through America’s higher education system benefit from insiders’ knowledge that helps them circumvent or resolve problems that can quickly trip up, slow down, and derail those who aren’t in the know. Take Jorge, a graduate school classmate of one of my colleagues at EAB. His journey spanned five years and three institutions.

Jorge did his first year at one of the Cal State campuses, where he struggled to integrate into the academic community. He was a great student in high school and his grades in college were fine, but he felt lost during large lecture classes and struggled to get facetime with his professors. When he did, he didn’t feel like they were invested—or even interested—in his academic goals. His feelings of isolation were compounded by the constant flow of paperwork he needed to fill out in order to maintain his federal aid and scholarships.

When it was time to declare a major, Jorge left campus and transferred to a nearby community college.

Boost your support programs for first-generation students

Jorge’s story certainly isn’t unique; members continually ask us how they can better support their growing population of first-generation students. Roughly 30% of college students today are first-generation students, but less than 11% of low-income, first-generation students will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Here are two practices we’ve uncovered to help institutions make their first-generation support programs more effective:

1. Build a sense of community through meaningful connections

First-generation status isn’t an overt characteristic. Despite being one of the largest “special populations” on most campuses, it can be difficult for first-generation students to find peers, and for faculty and administrators to recognize when students may need additional support. This lack of community can quickly lead students to feel isolated and question whether they belong.

You can combat these feelings by proactively connecting first-generation students with robust on-campus support networks.

The University of Rochester developed an ingenious campaign to both visibly show their support of first-generation college students and help these students find the resources they need. Inspired by the now common “Safe Zone” initiatives for LGBTQ students, Rochester created a decal display campaign known as “1st ONE.” By displaying a decal, faculty and staff signal that they understand the challenges of first-generation college students (possibly because they were also the first in their family to attend college) and would be happy to answer their questions or just offer time for a conversation.

Not only does this campaign help first-generation students find a community, but students also connect with specific resources they need in order to transition to campus life and succeed at Rochester.

While at community college, Jorge developed strong relationships with his professors, several of whom had been first-generation students themselves. They helped him narrow his field of interest, identify a major, build his transcript, and eventually transfer to a University of California school where he earned his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude.

2. Simplify campus navigation

Students who grow up in a “culture of college” often arrive on campus with an understanding of how institutions work and what is expected of them, gleaned from parents and older siblings. First-generation students have no such guides and are left to figure out this hidden curriculum all on their own. They must learn on the fly how to complete mandatory “to do’s” such as completing the FAFSA, understanding university communications, and preparing for life on campus. Institutions must find a way to develop and scale personalized guidance to flatten the learning curve for all first-generation college students.

Mobile phones provide a unique and under-leveraged opportunity to scale guidance. Today’s students are mobile natives, relying on apps, emails, and text messages to communicate and access information. Research shows that a combination of simple nudges and regular check-ins from mentors can go a long way to make such students feel confident that they can navigate the strange waters of college academics.

Institutions need to make sure students stop feeling like they are alone on their college pathway. Jorge ultimately graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a University of California school. Although his story has a happy ending, the journey wasn’t easy. Nor was it a forgone conclusion. The truth is, Jorge’s college career didn’t turn around until he found mentors willing to help him along his journey instead of leaving him to “figure it out” on his own.

Members that invest in community-building programs and proactive guidance will be in a much better position to support first-generation students.

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