Back-to-school season is upon us. For some students, it is routine. For others going to a new school, it can feel like stepping into the unknown. In many ways, first-generation college students are much like astronauts. Exploring uncharted territory always take a little longer than taking a known route. It took eight years for man to walk on the moon, but successive missions reaped the benefits of the inaugural experience. We find this to be generally true of all things we do for the first time – playing a sport, writing a grant proposal or launching a new business – and it is most certainly true for students who are the first in their families to go to college. This is why we are so glad that many colleges and universities have developed programs to help them navigate their academic journey.

First-generation college students experience predictable turbulence as they pursue their course. Their pioneering status can make them feel less prepared – they are twice as likely to drop out as their peers who have a parent with a post-secondary degree. To help social sector agencies stay on top of best practices and emerging trends in the first-generation universe, we wanted to share a few industry highlights.

There are currently two approaches to help first-generation students succeed.

A Comprehensive Student Services Approach

Investments in first-generation student success are heavily focused on a comprehensive approach that breaks down barriers related to academic preparation and financing. Services are generally not piecemeal; rather, students receive support in all areas of the ecosystem: academic, financial and supportive. The evidence base for comprehensive student services programs today stems from Federal TRIO Programs, including Upward Bound, that require a focus on academic instruction, tutoring, counseling, financial advising and more. Similar successful programs include secondary school-based YES Prep College Initiatives, post-secondary school-based AVID for Higher Education and the Suder Foundation’s First Scholars Program.

Building Advocacy and Awareness

Just like astronauts depend on NASA’s mission control for support, first-generation students can rely on a thriving supportive environment in their schools and communities. College presidents at schools like Santa Barbara City College and Walla Walla Community College have been ensuring student success by articulating broad strategic visions, creating lasting change and committing needed resources. Promising practices in the field are being cataloged and shared by Achieving the Dream. Universities and corporations are also developing practices to help first-generation students thrive through new programming, research and symposia.

Every successful mission needs resources to launch and sustain operations. Major funders of the first-generation ecosystem include the Dell, Kresge, Lumina, Posse and Walmart Foundations. You can follow them and other service providers on X (formerly Twitter) or by using #firstgen.

Making the path to graduation just a little easier to navigate for first-generation college students is a noble mission. We hope this industry sketch provides you with a benchmark to compare your first-gen programs, and we invite you to share your success stories with us.


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