Generating First-Generation Students

ACT has released its recent "Condition of College and Career Readiness" report, and while the news isn't unexpected, it's far from ideal. Nationally, only 26 percent of high-school graduates who took the ACT in 2013 met all four of its college-readiness benchmarks - English, reading, mathematics and science.

Even more troubling is the fact that only 9 percent of first-generation college students met all four benchmarks. In a separate report on first-generation students, for which ACT collaborated with the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), approximately 52 percent of all ACT-tested first-generation high school graduates did not meet any of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. This is 40 percent higher than high school graduates as a whole and 63 percent higher than high school graduates from families where at least one parent received a bachelor's degree.

Yet the report is optimistic about this group's goals and future readiness. For example, nearly 94 percent of ACT-tested first-generation students want to earn some form of postsecondary degree. Two out of three took ACT's recommended core curriculum, which includes four years of English and three years each of math, science and social studies. In addition, 60 percent of eighth and tenth graders were on target to be academically prepared for college-level courses in at least one subject.
Rigorous core curriculums, out-of-school support, and early monitoring and intervention are some items in the report that will help this population become ready for college. But how do colleges help first-generation students succeed once they arrive on campus?

The Chronicle for Higher Education writes about a new report from the Council of Independent Colleges, which provided grants to 50 member colleges during the past two years. Based upon their reports, the council has compiled a list of 10 best practices for serving first-generation students. This includes recruiting and tracking first-generation students, bringing them on campus early, creating programs that prepare first-generation students for academic success, identifying mentors for these students, building community and easing financial pressures.

It's important for us to be working with this population. A 2010 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that up to a quarter of the undergraduate population at four-year colleges consists of students whose parents have no postsecondary education. Another 25 percent have parents with some postsecondary education but no bachelor's degree. Barriers for this population include the fact that first-generation students come from families or communities that don't know much about the college application process, fear student loan debt and don't understand the financial aid application process.

Understanding the needs of this population will help them succeed. The Center for Student Opportunity recently started the "I'm First" project, in which people who are the first in their families to attend college offer advice on becoming successful students.

Here at College of DuPage, we recently developed a new initiative, "Resources for Student Success," which we will pilot for the fall 2014 term. We will identify first generation, Monetary-Award Program (MAP) grants-eligible, full-time, first-time students. These individuals will receive a special mailing introducing them to the many resources available at College of DuPage. Specifically, we will ensure these individuals are aware of free math placement test workshops as well as reading and writing assistance available through our academic assistance center, the Learning Commons. As part of this pilot, these students will be assigned a specific counselor or advisor so their academic success may be more closely followed.

From many events each year, such as the Foundation Scholarship Reception and GED Graduation, College of DuPage hears firsthand the moving stories about what the opportunity to enter into higher education means to first generation students and their families. As a college founded on accessibility, we will continue to do our best to make the dreams of our newest students come true.