Lessons Learned from the CIC/Walmart First-Generation Symposium

July 16, 2014

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst

Last week I had the opportunity to attend The Council of Independent Colleges/Walmart Foundation Symposium on First-Generation Students in Baltimore, MD, along with NCAN Member Services Manager Amina Anderson Pringle. The Symposium was the conclusion of a multi-year research effort surrounding the CIC/Walmart College Success Awards, grants given to 50 independent colleges and universities to find best practices for serving first-generation students. Many NCAN members experience in serving first-generation students, students of color, and low-income students are well-acquainted with the challenges besetting these students from getting to and through college. Consequently, the broad strokes of the College Success Awards report will seem familiar. Proving that there are new things under the sun, however, were the tidbits in practice and experience shared at the symposium that would make even the shrewdest college access veterans nod their heads.

The Council of Independent Colleges is “the major national service organization for small and mid-sized, independent, teaching-oriented liberal arts colleges and universities in the United States.” In two waves starting in 2008 and 2010, the Walmart Foundation funded 50 total CIC institutions in an effort to promote the success of first-generation students. Although the specific practices engaged in by each campus differed, they generally were coordinated around the following changes: connecting students to campus; preparing students for the academic rigors ahead and assisting them with tasks like choosing a major; and helping students afford to attend college, including not only tuition, room, and board, but also traveling home and other expenses like having pocket money.

In Making Sure They Make It!, CIC and Walmart’s grantees synthesize their lessons learned from working on improving conditions for first-generation students. Here is the broad advice with which they came up:

  1. Identify, actively recruit, and continually track first-generation students
  2. Bring them to campus early
  3. Focus on the distinctive features of the institution’s first generation students
  4. Develop a variety of programs that meet students’ on-going needs
  5. Use mentors
  6. Institutionalize a commitment to first-generation students
  7. Build community, promote engagement, and make it fun
  8. Involve family (but keep expectations realistic)
  9. Acknowledge, and ease when possible, financial pressures
  10. Keep track of your successes and failures: What works and what doesn’t?

These are strong approaches that would benefit nearly all students, not just first-generation students. Incidentally, the benefit reaped by all students when they receive these kinds of intervention was a common refrain at the symposium. Indeed one presenter whose campus is 65-70% first-generation said that his institution has realized benefits by just assuming that all students are first-generation.

Although the best practices were listed in no particular order in the report, it’s somewhat perturbing that the cost of college falls all the way to ninth, and when the report arrives to the cost of college the action is merely to “acknowledge, and ease when possible” (emphasis mine) the financial pressures that serve as a major obstacle for students. A much more assertive verb would have been welcome here, something like perhaps: “investigate the root drivers of institutional costs and explore cost-saving alternatives.”

In any event, the report is a handy one for institutions serving first-generation students (or, again, students in general). Beyond the report, there were a number of other interesting (and at times difficult) conversations carried on at the symposium.

It was clear that questions and conversations around race were uncomfortable for many attendees. Many of these institutions reported struggling with attaining diversity in both the student body and faculty. Unfortunately, this is the case on many campuses around the country. Although there was a lot of discussion about task forces, strategic plans, and town halls around diversity issues, these did not appear to be turning the tide toward having open conversations about race on many campuses. Race being a difficult topic to discuss does not bode well for first-generation students of color who need campuses to address head-on and find solutions to the challenges students face. In one room, an audience member opined that white first-generation students have a very different experience than their black counterparts. “White students don’t carry a question mark about where they come from and what their status is. Black students live in support offices. White students come in, get what they need, and then go back into the college context.”

That idea of the “college context” was on the mind of one attendee who asked “How do we go from [first-generation students] surviving to thriving?” one attendee asked. Those first-generation students who make it to campus and progress are too often missing among Phi Beta Kappa recipients and distinguished honorees at commencement. As the speaker ruefully noted, “These programs are successful, but we are still failing these students in so many ways.” The effort that many attendees spoke about was getting students to go beyond just passing classes and instead to become fully interwoven in the fabric of the campus community. This can be difficult because first-generation students are more likely to hold outside employment or be commuters. One notable practice that was shared by Bellarmine University in Lousiville, Kentucky was a campus-wide “free period” twice a week in the middle of the day. This free period is intended for students and student organizations to engage with each other. For students residing off-campus who cannot make meetings in the evenings, this time can help them to better connect with the campus community.

There were also creative suggestions from other schools as well. For example, freshmen who attended seven check-in sessions during their first year were given a $150 book store gift card the month before their sophomore year commenced as an enticement to get the semester started on the right foot. For students wanting to stay on track in a semester with three tough courses, one school explained that it would encourage students to take two out of the three courses that semester and would then offer a half scholarship to the student to take the third over the summer. Still another school found success by handing out “first-generation friendly” stickers for faculty and staff offices, much like the GLBTQ “safe space” stickers on many campuses nationwide, so that students know where they can duck in for some advice. $150 gift cards, half-scholarships for individual courses, and welcoming stickers aren’t in and of themselves going to turn the tide for students in need of more comprehensive supports, but these practices are a good start and show some creativity, and when combined they start to build a campus atmosphere that is cognizant and welcoming of first-generation students.

Creativity and imagination are needed to address the issues experienced by many first-generation students. Worth noting is that this group of students is not monolithic and neither are their concerns. As one presenter pointed out, the “first-generation” variable in and of itself is not a risk factor in their analyses of student outcomes. Instead it is the combination of “first-generation” and “low-income” or “student of color” or “at-risk high school.” The specific strategies that should be employed to meet the needs of all students, first-generation or not, need to vary from campus to campus, department to department, and student to student. The takeaway from this symposium, however, is that these students do need energy, attention, and especially, encouragement, and we know, broadly, what all of those supports look like. As one audience member asked, “When do first-generation students become not ‘at-risk?’ What is the effect of labeling students as always ‘not quite?’” The question about where to find the finish line of students “at-risk” is a sobering reminder that no matter how much far along we are in the race to provide college access, there are always more students in need of advice about getting to a campus, staying there, and finding success.

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