Students who come from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their family to go to college can often feel out of place in the unfamiliar world of higher education. For those attending highly selective institutions, where the vast majority of students are often from well-educated and affluent families, this struggle is all the more acute.
[Above: Healy Hall at Georgetown University]
While the number of these students who attend highly selective schools has increased slightly in recent years due primarily to more tailored financial aid packages and recruitment efforts, they remain an anomaly at elite campuses. Just 3 percent of incoming freshmen at the nation’s most selective universities are from the lowest income quartile, while 72 percent come from the highest, according to a 2017 report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. According to the report, the extreme competitiveness of top-ranking colleges means only the wealthiest of families can afford the preparatory high schools, private tutoring, college coaching services, and other factors that are often necessary to gain admittance to these institutions.
First-generation and low-income students who do get into top schools face unique challenges due to not having access to better resources in high school. Not surprisingly, 50 percent report feeling less prepared to succeed at such institutions compared with their more affluent classmates, according to research conducted by Rachel Gable, EdD, assistant director of academic programming in the Global Education Office at Virginia Commonwealth University. Gable helped lead a four-year study — from 2012 to 2016 — that tracked the experiences of first-generation and continuing-generation students (i.e., those who have one or more parent with a college degree) at Brown University, Duke University, Georgetown University, and Harvard University.
The study found key differences in how the students felt about the level of inclusiveness and support on their respective campuses. First-generation students reported difficulty in navigating the campus and understanding the unique culture and traditions of their university, says Gable. By contrast, continuing-generation students were more familiar with the experience of being on a college campus and therefore struggled less to acclimate.
“For the first year or two on campus, first-generation students typically felt overwhelmed by all the changes in their lives happening at once, whereas continuing-generation students were more likely to say they felt at home on campus even before they arrived,” says Gable.
Furthermore, most continuing-generation students felt comfortable asking for assistance from professors or utilizing campus support services. Conversely, Gable says those who were first-generation were less willing to reach out to faculty or to seek outside assistance, concerned that they would be seen as an “admissions mistake.”
“First-generation students often said things like they did not feel as if they had a right to ask for help because they had already been given so much by being admitted,” she says. “A major insight [of the study was] that there needed to be a policy in place to tell these freshmen … that the administration and faculty are there to support them and help them troubleshoot when there are problems.”
Knowing how to take advantage of the support resources in higher education is known as the “hidden curriculum” — a skill that’s particularly useful at highly selective institutions where the assumption is that all students are well-prepared to succeed in college, says Khristina Gonzalez, PhD, associate dean of the college and director of programs for access and inclusion at Princeton University.
With an overall acceptance rate of just 6.5 percent, Princeton has focused much of its recruitment and financial aid efforts in recent years on enrolling more underserved students.— which, according to Gonzalez, seems to be working. From 2007 to 2017, the university increased the number of Pell Grant-eligible students from 7 percent to 22 percent. As enrollment of these individuals increased, the university recognized the need to move beyond recruitment to retention.
“We were seeing a lot of gaps in terms of knowing how to navigate the hidden curriculum and in feeling a sense of belonging on campus,” says Gonzalez, adding that the majority of Princeton’s Pell-eligible students are also the first in their family to go to college. “We realized that access is not the end goal. To make sure our students can thrive on campus, there needs to be not just equity of access, but also equity of opportunity.”
Launched in 2015, the Scholars Institute Fellows Program (SIFP) at Princeton is designed to assist lower-income students with navigating the campus and its offerings. A major component of the program is a scorecard, which lists activities students must complete every semester that are designed to help them succeed. “We call it our bingo game, and it’s basically a points system where every scholar gets a card with certain categories, such as mentorship or academic enrichment, that they have to complete,” says Gonzalez. “It’s our way of rendering visible the hidden curriculum.”
The scorecard ensures that students are engaging with the campus community as well as taking advantage of academic support throughout their time at Princeton, says Gonzalez. At the suggestion of program participants, SIFP also pairs upperclassmen mentors with younger members to help guide them through the experience of attending a school where, according to a 2017 New York Times report, nearly 60 percent of students are from families in the top 10 percent of household incomes.
Mentorship, according to Gable’s research, can serve a key function in helping people from underserved backgrounds navigate the college experience with confidence. “First-generation students, having worked so hard to be perfect and not necessarily having a lot of role models who have gone through college, were more likely to read an academic setback, such as a bad test grade, as a sign of failure rather than a sign that they needed to redirect some of their study habits,” explains Gable. “Those students who ended up performing really well were those who found mentors who told them it was OK to make mistakes and who could help them [improve] their study habits.”
Additionally, she believes that highly selective schools could enact policies and institutional messaging that demonstrate to these students that they are a valued and welcome part of the campus community and that the institution is committed to their success. A critical part of this effort is making faculty aware of the unique issues they face and identifying faculty and staff allies who are willing to serve as mentors and advocates, Gable says. She believes Georgetown University is an exemplar in this respect.
The Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP) is based on a support network of faculty, staff, and alumni who are dedicated to supporting first-generation and low-income students through mentorship and advising, financial aid, and community-building opportunities. In addition to a full scholarship for each of its current 650 members, GSP offers several mentorship options to help guide them through every step of the college experience — from freshman orientation to applying for jobs or graduate school.
First-year students are paired with a junior or senior GSP member with similar personal and academic interests, while GSP upperclassmen can request a faculty, staff, or alumni mentor in their area of study who can help introduce them to their specific career field. Furthermore, faculty and staff members who work with the program place special flags on their office doors to inform the campus community that they are first-generation and low-income student allies.
Cory Stewart, director of outreach and engagement at Georgetown and a GSP adviser, says that the program emphasizes empowering the individual to decide how much he or she wants to engage with its mentors and the GSP community. Freshmen are required to attend an initial meeting with an adviser who counsels them on the program’s many resources and how its large support network can help them acclimate to the campus. After this initial meeting, however, students get to determine when and how much they wish to meet with their advisers; participate in GSP social events, such as bimonthly dinners; or use the program’s many financial resources, such as grants for everything from winter attire to LSAT tutoring.
“Everything we do is opt-in and student-driven, so we never say you have to apply for something or have to meet with an adviser after the initial session,” explains Stewart. “We want the students to know that they are absolutely exceptional and that we are here to support them any way we can.”
GSP has also begun to work with other highly selective schools to help them develop similar programs and best practices for helping underserved students. Stewart’s recommendations include having campus leaders who will serve as the primary advocates for these individuals and who will allow the students themselves to guide and adapt the program. GSP, for example, was only a scholarship until recipients requested additional support as well as a student board that would enable them to have a say in how the program is run.
While initiatives like GSP are increasing the visibility of these populations on the campuses of highly selective schools and helping students embrace their first-generation and low-income identity with pride, Gable also recommends that universities respect the agency of these successful and determined individuals. She notes that making support services optional as well as based on the wants and needs of students is imperative for creating an inclusive environment — especially as some do not want the label of first-generation or low-income ascribed to them.
“Some students who [achieve] great academic success [at highly selective institutions] did so despite challenges, and their own merit was essentially what got them through at the end of the day,” says Gable. “That’s not to say that schools shouldn’t try to do anything, because even those students who do it on their own face challenges.”●
Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our June 2018 issue.