High school students who want to become the first in their families to attend college often lack support, guidance and know-how necessary for college admissions and beyond.1 While the number of first-generation ACT takers has nearly doubled since 2011, over half of those taking the test meet none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. To address this problem, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education interviewed first-generation students to identify the factors that had the most impact on college enrollment decisions.2 Pell's findings identified three steps high school educators and administrators can take to help first-generation students get motivated and prepared to enter college.

Raising College Aspirations

Many first-generation students don't realize going to college was even possible for them. Students often do not connect attending college with achieving financial or career goals, partly because they often lack awareness of career options. They may also feel like they're not college material due to low self-esteem or inability to pay. Educational professionals can help raise students' college aspirations by encouraging career inventory assessments, raising awareness of pre-college programs, providing information about college options and financing, providing role models such as guest speakers to show students it is possible for them to succeed, and being proactive and persistent about reaching out to students on an individual level.

Additionally, for some students, the standard four-year and two-year degree programs may seem too overwhelming to consider. Today's alternative education pathways such as career diplomas, certifications and associations, extend beyond lengthy degree programs and offer even more career and skills-focused training.

Navigating Admissions

First-generation students also need help navigating the admissions process. Most do not receive assistance from family members, while guidance counselors typically do not provide input until senior year, which is late in the game. Educational professionals can help by initiating meetings at an earlier stage and getting students talking to their families about their career and college goals. Discussions should be geared towards explaining the admissions process and taking necessary steps such as preparing for entrance exams, exploring college options and visiting campuses. Putting students in touch with community resources such as state-supported GO Centers can also help.

Applying for financial aid is another complex area that first-generation students struggle with. Many question whether they will qualify for lending while others fail to explore tuition assistance altogether.  

Easing the College Transition

First-generation students typically find it more difficult to stay in college than to get there due to lack of academic preparation along with financial and social challenges. High school educational professionals can help make the transition easier by providing resources such as college exam preparation classes, tutoring, and bridge courses that allow students to visit or attend college while in high school.

For students struggling with traditional high school coursework, it's important to not only offer avenues to ensure timely graduation but also inform them of non-traditional options for continued education post-graduation. For instance, online resources such as summer school and credit recovery courses can also support students efforts to pursue high school completion, while introducing them to blended learning environments now offered on many post-secondary institutions.

Other steps that can assist students with their college transition include getting parents involved in the campus orientation process, connecting students with mentors and peer groups, and helping students plan their finances.

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Resources: Photo Credit (1) For First-Generation College Students, Educational Aspirations Are Out of Sync with Preparation (2) Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students