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First-Generation Students

Counseling first-generation students about college

Working with first-generation students — that is, those who are in the first generation of their families to go to college — presents a counselor with special challenges as well as potentially great rewards. What particular needs do first-generation students have and how can you best guide them?

Who are first-generation students?

First-generation students can come from families with low incomes or from middle- or higher-income families without a college-going tradition. Some have parents who support their plans for higher education; others are under family pressure to enter the workforce right after high school.

Often these students don't know what their options are regarding higher education, and they may have fears about going to college and misconceptions about college and its costs. These students may come from families who speak languages other than English at home or from cultures outside the United States with different education systems.

Strategies for working with these students

1. Reach out early.

Identify your first-generation students as early as possible so that you can begin to talk with them and their families about college and what high school course work will prepare them for college.

  • Talk to them about taking AP and honors courses to prepare for college-level work.
  • Make sure that they take a solid, challenging course load so they meet the requirements for college admission — even if they're not yet sure they'll go.
  • Encourage them to take the PSAT/MNSQT® in 10th grade and then make full use of the free skill-assessment and -building tools on My College QuickStart™

2. Extend the scope of your counsel.

When working with these families, cover the basics of self-assessment, college and careers. First-generation students may never have been encouraged to assess their talents and weaknesses with a view toward higher education. They are also likely to have minimal knowledge of what education requirements are needed for certain professions.

"Sometimes, they don't know the difference between a doctor and someone who draws blood. You have to educate them about the different professions and how their skills and interests play a role in making appropriate choices," says Scott White of Montclair High School, New Jersey.

Help first-generation students understand how their interests and abilities can connect to a career and higher education options.

  • Conduct early aptitude assessments.
  • Talk to them about which career paths these might point to. Probe. If a student is considering becoming an architect, ask the student what architects actually do and how much education they need.
  • Encourage them fill out the Recommendations: Student Self-Assessment.
  • Be honest with them about where they are in their education and what they should focus on.

3. Involve the family.

Working successfully with the families of first-generation students may take different strategies. You will encounter a wide range of attitudes about college, from supportive to obstructive. You may have to explain college basics or make the case for the value of higher education. Share College: What It’s All About and Why It Matters with parents.

For more information, see Helping Families Research Colleges.

4. Give special help with college search and selection.

When discussing college options with these students, take time to describe the different types of colleges. You may have to explain terms such as "liberal arts college."

Be aware that some colleges seek to enroll first-generation students. Identify these and pass the information on to your students.

Watch for (and combat) students' preconceptions that they can't afford college at all, or the reverse — that they will easily get full scholarships. Discourage any fixations on "name" colleges and focus on finding a good fit for each student.

Make sure students know that in addition to public universities, private colleges may be financially feasible thanks to grants and financial aid. Use net price calculators to show them how.

Encourage students to visit colleges. Organize school-led trips, if possible. And make sure they take advantage of college fairs and information nights.

Talk to students about community college. This is a good fit for some first-generation students. Share with them Why Community College for more information.

5. Give special help with college applications.

First-generation students from families with low incomes may qualify for waivers of test fees as well as college application fees. Make sure they're aware of this early on.

Educate students about application deadlines. Some of these students may not understand that these deadlines are firm.

Counselors report that first-generation students are more hesitant than other students to apply online.

If they file paper forms:

  • Stress the importance of neatness and of making copies of all parts of an application.
  • Remind them to use their full name consistently.
  • Review the forms before they send them to colleges.

6. Give special help with financial aid applications and packages.

See Explaining Financial Aid for detailed articles and information.

Families unfamiliar with college financing are easy targets for scams. Let students and families know that they should not pay anyone to help them find scholarships, fill out the FAFSA or handle any other aspect of the financial aid process.

7. Explain what college will be like.

Talk with your students about what college will be like. They may feel more adrift than most first-year college students. Tell them that there are support systems on campus and that the tuition and fees they pay give them access to these services at no additional cost. Point them to the articles Campus Services: There Is Support When You Need It and What to Expect from Campus Life.

According to Stephen Handel, executive director of Higher Education Relationship Development and Community College Initiatives at the College Board, “In addition to general student concerns — how to register, what to take and where to park — first-generation students often have the added overlay of learning a new language, code of behavior and set of responsibilities.”

8. Work with other organizations.

Consider developing college awareness events with local middle schools.

Let students know that they can take classes at local community colleges and earn both high school and college credit.

Develop relationships with community groups and outreach organizations that provide academic help to young people.

Research programs for first-generation and other at-risk students such as AVID, CollegeEd®, Talent Search, Upward Bound, Urban League, and summer bridge programs.

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Learning how to stay on top of a calendar and see a task through to its end are vitally important skills. These action plans help students take responsibility for the college planning process.

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