Much is made about the dream of being the first in a family to attend college, but is higher education doing enough to facilitate that dream through to graduation? In her new book, The Journey Before Us: First-Generation Pathways from Middle School to College (Rutgers University Press), Laura Nichols explores what can be done to improve college completion rates in this demographic. Nichols, an associate sociology professor at Santa Clara University in California, shares national data as well as the stories of a group of Latinx students on their educational journey. Along the way she discusses the wide range of factors that helped or hindered their success.
While the book does not dig specifically into the impact housing departments can have, it does provide insights that are useful for anyone who works with this student population. Nichols answered questions from the Talking Stick.
You note the challenges students face when they transition from one educational level to the next (middle school to high school, high school to college). What are steps that college housing departments can take to assist with that transition?
There has been a huge cultural change in the U.S. where people understand that college is important for social mobility, and most parents, regardless of their educational background, say they want their children to go to college. However, less than half of parents without a college degree believe that moving away to go to college is important. Especially for low-income parents, paying to maintain two residences does not make financial sense. This can lead to first-generation students who, though they would succeed by going full time to schools with high graduation rates, instead live at home and attend those with low graduation rates. While this may be necessary for financial and other reasons, housing departments may want to consider how they can help families understand the role of living on campus early on in students’ educational trajectories and possibly open that opportunity up for more students. And it would be great for housing staff to be aware of how challenging it can be for some first-generation college students to live on campus if their families do not support or understand why this could be an important part of their college experience.
You also note the important role that family can play in this process for first-generation students. What types of programs or information can campuses offer to keep the family connected to the process? What questions do you think these students need to have answered before they arrive on campus?
When visiting middle and high schools, college representatives would do well to describe the importance of living on campus in very tangible ways: that students will meet other students on campus who can help support them and will more readily have access to future job prospects, tutoring, and other resources. Parents of first-generation college students may not realize the amount of college learning that takes place outside of class and how important meeting other students can be to accomplishing future career goals. And then before families arrive to move their children in, it would be helpful for parents to know that student safety, access to campus resources, and additional learning will be a focus of the living experience. Families can also be reminded of the importance of independence and their children learning how to live with and among those who are not their family members.
You write, “Cultural guides were vital when students most needed them, not necessarily when programs or advisors suspected they were most needed.” What are the questions or issues you saw students wrestle with? Are there ways housing programs could either help answer those questions or point students in the right direction when needed?
Once in college, students often started to doubt themselves the first week of classes if they felt they were different from others in their classrooms and also when they received their first graded work. These are times when added support was needed by some students. Those who had parents and family members with college backgrounds could turn to them for reassurance. But first-generation students might not have someone they can do this with, and they may not want to burden or worry their parents with their struggles. While doubt about their ability to do well and feelings of belonging in college can creep in at different times, reassurance when receiving a bad grade would have been helpful for students who might not have had someone who could tell them that they also struggled to adjust to college at first. Support and consistent reminders that they belonged were some of the most important factors in keeping students on track. Some students also struggled with culture shock if the demographics of the student body were much different from the demographics of their high schools. Then students also needed reminders that they belonged, as well as opportunities to contribute to and feel empowered by all they brought to campus.
— James A. Baumann