Only 11 percent of low-income first-generation college students earn a four-year degree within six years. Academic preparation isn’t the only issue, writes Mikhail Zinshteyn in The Atlantic. Better counseling is helping first-generation students master the “hidden curriculum.”
Reina Olivas, a straight A student in high school, had to improve her study skills to succeed at the University of Texas at Austin. Now, as a Dell Scholars mentor, she advises other first-generation students. When a first-year student said she “was having a hard time with the cultural experience, the college experience,” Olivas asked, “Have you gone to office hours?”
“Well, how do you do that?” Olivas recalls the student asking. “It took me back to the place where I was my first semester—what are office hours, and why do I need to go?”
About a third of college students are the first in their families to try higher education. Most come from lower-income families and many work more than 20 hours a week.
“Simple nudges and regular check-ins from mentors can go a long way toward making such students feel confident that they can navigate the strange waters of college academics,” writes Zinshteyn.
California State University Dominguez Hills, which enrolls many first-gen students, has lifted its graduation rate by offering a two-month summer program for new students with weak math and English scores. In addition, students learn “college knowledge,” such as how to find help, and “forge important relationships with peers and mentors,’ writes Zinshteyn.
The university created “a data tracker that monitors student performance and allows advisers to recommend more relevant coursework and support.”
In 2008, before mentoring and academic changes, the university lost 53 percent of students who’d started two years earlier. Retention rates are rising.