Imagine you are embarking on a journey. A very expensive journey where you are not completely certain of the costs and the best way to go about paying for this meaningful voyage. You might wonder why you are going on this journey in the first place and how to make the cost equal, if not less than the value you gain from the experience. In the next post of this series, we will take a closer look at the financial obstacles first generation students face, resources that students can utilize to overcome these obstacles, and institutions that have financial assistance practices in place to assist this growing population of students.
Our second stop on the journey to develop a better understanding of first generation students involves financial considerations. According to Ila Schauer at Prairie View A&M University, first generation students face “debt load”, which means that they tend to come from lower income families and are more likely to accrue a large amount of debt before completing their degrees. Lack of high school preparation and low college entrance scores result in first generation students not qualifying for scholarships, further contributing to the lack of financial support they receive.
On top of a lack of support, college continues to become more and more expensive. Pell Grants at maximum cover only 36% of the price of attendance at a public four-year institution. Additionally, low-income, first generation students receive only slightly more aid than their peers. The Institute for Higher Education and Excelencia in Education notes that students who identify as Latino, come from low-income backgrounds, or are less educated, tend to feel strongly against borrowing money for college.
From my experience as a Student Success Advocate, I have worked with a good number of first generation students and they speak of a strong connection to their families. They not only want to make them proud and be the first in their families to earn a college degree, they serve as a form of support for their families whether that be mentally, emotionally, and/or financially. First generation students are not only financially supporting themselves through college; they are working multiple jobs to support their families at home.
Steps to Becoming First-Generation Friendly
There are several steps institutions can take to assist first generation students before they arrive on campus. In order for your institution to be considered first generation-friendly, consider implementing the following strategies:
Don’t assume that students understand the language around financial aid.
Assist them with the process of understanding their Financial Aid Award Letter. It can be hard for any student to understand an award letter, let alone first generation students. Be sure to mention what type of aid is included and whether or not grants and scholarships are renewable. Help students and their families be aware of the gap between how much you as an institution are able to contribute and what the student is ultimately responsible for paying. It is also beneficial to include information about how competitive scholarships were granted. Encourage students (and their families when appropriate) to sit down with the Financial Aid office to see if anything else can be done to assist them. Most importantly, reach out to them proactively and take them step-by-step through the award!
Be up front about cost.
Provide a straight-forward way for students to calculate the amount it will cost them to attend your institution by making the Net Price Calculator available and known to them. This provides students and their families with a clear-cut way of seeing how much it will cost to attend your institution.
Capitalize on text messaging.
Students are increasingly utilizing their phones to manage their lives. Send text messages to accepted students to remind them of upcoming financial aid deadlines. This is a low-cost and effective way to keep them informed about financial aid deadlines.
Offer 1-on-1 financial aid coaching.
If admissions or financial aid counselors can dedicate time with individual students, the students will walk away having a better understanding of the financial aid process, their award package, and any other services that the office can provide to help them complete their undergraduate degree in the most cost-effective manner possible. The stronger their connection is to your financial aid department, the more likely they are to feel comfortable asking questions and following through on whatever you may need them to do while they are connected to the office. If resources are tight at your institution, consider partnering with I’m First or Chegg to offer a few hours of free financial aid coaching to your students.
Consider utilizing videos or a blog to share the experiences of current first-generation students at your institution. It offers a way for students who have already gone through certain experiences to help new students, and sometimes hearing this information from peers instead of professionals, makes it more real and authentic.
There are also a variety of initiatives that you can utilize at your institution to help support first generation students financially. Want ideas? I've compiled a list of some of my favorite examples of institutions and the support they offer first generation students:
Targeted Campus Websites
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s website has a video of students who identify as first generation, talking about the overall value of their experience at the University. They also communicate the financial value of having a college degree when searching for a job. Both of these factors will help ease a student’s mind when seeing a potentially large number for tuition. The website also offers financial support through two programs: Collegebound Nebraska and Educationquest Foundation.
Need-Based Financial Aid
Franklin and Marshall Collegeuniv provided aid to 56% of its students in 2014 as compared to 37% of its students in 2008 and University of Pennsylvania meets 100% of need for tuition along with room and board with need-based aid. What better way to help first generation students than with direct financial support?
First Generation Student Organizations
MIT’s First Generation Program offers direct connections with other first generation students. Prospective students can view accounts of other student experiences. Current students can be involved on the advisory board and participate in a peer mentoring program.
Financially Supported Leadership Opportunities
The University of Texas in Austin incentivizes students to take on leadership opportunities not only by contributing to one’s resume, but by offering paid leadership positions. Last year, they paid 500 students, $5,000 annually, spread out over monthly payments. This way, if a first generation student is toying with the idea of taking on a leadership position, but is also concerned with earning an income and outside job responsibilities, they can manage both through one role.
Georgia State University’s Panther Retention Grant offers students small amounts of money who are on track to graduate. University of Akron and University of Washington – Tacoma have very similar programs. universi
Fundraisers for Scholarships
Linfield College, after experiencing significant growth in the number of attending first generation students, the College established a fundraising campaign to endow scholarships for this specific population.
This list only scratches the surface of campus initiatives created to financially support first generation students, but hopefully it gets your wheels turning as to ideas that might work well at your institution. I'd love to hear what you're doing at your institution or what ideas you've seen be successful.
The next stop of our journey as we explore the needs of first generation students will further look at their academic experience and the tools institutions are putting in place in order to help them be successful. I hope you'll join me!
About the author: Kaitlin Wolfert is currently an Academic Adviser at Penn State Abington and has seven years of higher education experience. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in Organizational Leadership through Eastern University. Kaitlin loves cooking, working out, traveling, and diving into a good book. Connect with Kaitlin on LinkedIn.