A Commitment to Making College Accessible to First-Generation College Students

As the president of a public college, one of my main charges is to make an education at Keene State College accessible to a wide variety of potential students who exhibit the drive, dedication and perseverance to earn a college-level education. This issue of accessibility can have to do with affording school, understanding how to find the right fit and get accepted to college, or how to navigate and maximize the college experience. This can be challenging for students whose parents didn't attend college. More than 40 percent of Keene State's students are first in their families to attend a four-year college. As a first-generation college student myself, I can personally attest to the life-changing impact college has had for me, and for many people I have had the privilege to know because of my choice to attend college and further continue my studies.

In general, first-generation students need extra support. According to the national nonprofit, Center for Student Opportunity, it is estimated that "30 percent of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions today are low income, first-generation college students. However, 89 percent of these students will not earn an undergraduate degree within six years, because they drop out of college at four times the rate of peers whose parents have postsecondary degrees." This points to a real need to understand how to best help first-generation students, and implement critical services to keep them in college through to the completion of their degrees. We take this very seriously, and have found some programs to be incredibly important to helping students succeed.

Organizations that offer resources, such as the "I'm First" program (www.imfirst.org), can make a big difference - that is why we are a part of it. It's also critical to have services, staff and faculty available on campus to support first-generation students. We offer a six-week summer program called Links, which is designed for first-time college students to expose them to the academic and social expectations of college in a supportive learning community. The program takes place in classrooms, a residence hall, around campus and in the local Keene, New Hampshire community. The Links program is designed to enhance critical skills such as college reading, writing, critical thinking and communication. At the close of six weeks, students are better able to handle the varied demands of college and be active, contributing members in the college community.

For first-generation students, class, social, academic, and cultural barriers to higher education can be major hurdles. Through services such as our Aspire program, participants receive tutoring, counseling and advising. Each fall, Aspire offers a two-credit College 101 course to entering students. The curriculum of this course allows for hands-on learning to connect students to the campus community, and to build their academic, personal, social and leadership skills. The course covers time management, campus involvement, study strategies, stress management, college course selection, career exploration, studying abroad, diversity and multiculturalism, financial aid, scholarships, and residential life.

Finally, tutoring and mentorship are absolutely essential in supporting first-generation students. Students must be presented with opportunities to meet one-on-one with someone who becomes a trusted resource during their college experience. Tutors and mentors help students to pull together the pieces they need to be successful during college, and after.

Leaders in higher education have a responsibility to continue to find new ways to support first-generation students, because college graduates have incredible knowledge and passion to take into the world. Making it possible for more people to earn a college education means we are improving the future of our country and our world. As we say at Keene State College, "Enter to learn, go forth to serve".