The Next Einstein Project: Easy steps to help first-generation college students fit in and finish

college-graduatesEven for the most talented and determined among them, young people who grew up in a disadvantaged family face enormous barriers to going to college and finishing their degree. Unfamiliarity with financial aid, lack of family members experienced with the ins-and-outs of academic competition on campus, feelings of alienation from a student body dominated by affluent peers—such factors help explain why first-generation students in particular are so vulnerable. As one expert explained to The New York Times, a sense of belonging socially and academically matters because “students who don’t think they fit in are less likely to reach out for help and more likely to suffer emotionally and have lower grades.”

The good news is that there are steps and interventions colleges and universities can take to help these students get past the finish line, including some relatively low-cost and easy lift ideas. These efforts are especially important for identifying and supporting the next generation of brilliant Black and Latinx leaders, given that 4 in 10 Black students and 6 in 10 Hispanics are first-generation college-goers. Here’s a roundup of a few ideas.

Via The Atlantic:

Olivas is part of an eight-person crew at the Dell Scholars Program that connects with 1,500 college students across the country who could use a helpful hint from other students who also are wending their way through higher learning.

Researchers are learning much more about first-generation students these days, showing that a combination of 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.

A 2011 study by Eric Bettinger of Stanford University that looked at more than 13,000 college-student records 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. The students who received mentoring were picked by a kind of lottery, suggesting that coaching alone was responsible for the bump in retention.

The university’s vice president of student affairs, William Franklin, said the academic improvement can be attributed to a major rethinking of how the campus serves its students. A few years ago, the university introduced a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen whose test scores suggested they could use a tune up in math and English. The two-month summer session is free for those who qualify, reviews some of the “hidden-curriculum” concepts, introduces the campus’s many useful facilities, and helps to forge important relationships with peers and mentors. The university also spent nearly two years revising its student-mentoring program, creating a data tracker that monitors student performance and allows advisers to recommend more relevant coursework and support.

Via The New York Times:

That makes spring break difficult, which is why he considers it a victory that, after being pressed, administrators kept two dining halls open last month, for the first time, in recognition that not all students can leave.

Elites are trying to catch up. Campuses have designated first-gen administrators, bolstered mentoring programs and added articles about socioeconomics to faculty readings on diversity. Some are careful in assigning roommates. “In a double, we would not put a student not on aid with a student on full aid,” said Thomas Dingman, dean of freshmen at Harvard.

A fund was set up four years ago at Georgetown to cover classroom clickers, winter coats and, when dining halls are closed, grocery money. Low-income freshmen get bedding as a welcome gift (not a handout), said Melissa Foy, director of the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which oversees the fund. “Messaging is everything.” The program crafted a “Survival Guide” (how to access financial aid refunds, cheapest days for air travel), a “Cheat Sheet” for parents (what is a midterm?), and airport pickup and move-in help for those arriving alone. During a special orientation, freshmen rehearse conversations with roommates about chipping in for dorm furnishings.

In January, Harvard named its first first-generation tutor.

Dr. Stephens and colleagues published a study last year in Psychological Science in which freshmen were assigned to attend one of two hourlong orientation sessions. In one, panelists gave advice about the transition to college and challenges like choosing classes. In the other, the same panelists wove their backgrounds into advice….  Researchers then looked at end-of-year grades: Typically, first-generation freshman G.P.A.s lag behind their peers’ by 0.3 points. The gap was eliminated for students in the session where panelists shared their backgrounds; they also reported being happier, less stressed out and more willing to seek help than the control group.

Via Fast Company:

At San Francisco State University, a few simple changes, like incoming students seeing a video message from peers, answering a self-affirming questionnaire, and receiving supportive text messages throughout the year boosted retention rates 10% among first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.

At ASU, where 4 out of 5 kids were missing a priority deadline for federal financial aide, sending out staggered email messages to give both kids and parents more notice and divide the complicated process into a series of manageable tasks boosted application rates by 72%, resulting in far more students being able to secure non-interest bearing student loans.

… Now that educators are aware of these simple tricks, Ideas42 suggests thinking bigger. The report suggests potential innovations like “smart registration platforms” that create customized class schedules based on major and time restraints, including built-in study blocks to manage stress.

Citations: “First-Generation Students Unite,” The New York Times; “How to Help First-Generation Students Succeed,” The Atlantic (2016); and “Tiny Interventions Can Help Reverse Our Sky-High College Dropout Rate,” Fast Company (2016).