It Starts With Access: How Institutions Are Supporting First-Generation Students

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The college application season — and the financial aid applications that go hand-in-hand — are now well underway for students from all walks of life, including those who may be the first in their family to attend college. And while experts say progress has been made to enroll and retain first-generation college students, there’s still work to be done. Students whose parents did not attend college make up a sizable portion of the student population, and still face unique challenges. That’s why some institutions are creating new programs or beefing up existing ones to provide resources for first-generation students, such as mentoring opportunities and one-on-one financial support. 

According to data from the Brookings Institution, today over 40% of entering students are first-generation students. And first-generation students disproportionately enroll in less-selective colleges, with almost 69% of first-generation students attending a college with open admissions, compared to 31% of non-first-generation students.

Brittani Williams, senior policy analyst in higher education at The Education Trust, has 15 years of experience in financial aid and is a first generation student herself. She said because many first-generation students often come from low-wealth communities, they don’t have access to apply to college and to stay and complete their degree. 

Though first-generation students are more likely to use financial aid services than continuing-generation students, at 65%, compared with 49% of continuing-generation students, according to NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education’s Center for First Generation Success, Williams said completing the FAFSA and understanding financial aid is one of the biggest challenges for first-generation students. 

“When we think about first-generation students struggling with affordability, it starts with that access piece,” Williams said. “How do we understand what our award letter is even talking about? Who's guiding us through the tuition cost, versus the amount of aid that I'm receiving? And in what ways can I acquire more money to go to college?”

First-generation students may struggle to understand and complete the FAFSA because neither of their parents or siblings have submitted the application before and don’t have prior knowledge, Williams said. Questions can arise for students on how to complete an FSA ID, how to use the FAFSA website, what kind of documentation is needed, and more. 

“I've seen this is where parents and students may become frustrated with the FAFSA,” Williams said. “This is where you could get a FAFSA submission, but maybe not a FAFSA completion, because especially first-generation students, if this is your first time completing the FAFSA, yes, you can submit the FAFSA, but if all six sections are not completed, then that's not a completed FAFSA.”

While Federal Student Aid (FSA) released its strategic plan for 2023-27 which includes objectives to help simplify the FAFSA process, Williams said institutions can immediately start reaching out to first-generation students to complete the FAFSA.

“I think the immediate solution for institutions is intense outreach,” Williams said. “I know some institutions are doing this where they are hosting specific events that call students to come and have that one-on-one. I think that one-on-one guidance is what is going to support students.”

And while progress has been made to better help first-generation students on campus, Williams said moving forward, institutions will need to continue to assess the demographics on campus to better identify what resources students need, specifically within the first-generation community. 

“Progress looks like collecting the data of the demographics of students on campus to better formulate how to serve the students,” Williams said. “I think that colleges for years have been changing the narrative that there's no more traditional students. Our students are coming from various backgrounds and various lived experiences. And I think that colleges have to continue to evolve in disaggregated data collection to identify what students are on campus, and what services they need.” 

Latino First-Generation Experience 

Latino and Hispanic students are more likely to be first-generation college students than any other racial or ethnic group. According to educational nonprofit organization Excelencia in Education, more than 4 in 10 Hispanic students are the first in their family to attend college. And many Latino students face unique challenges to accessing higher education. 

Roxanne Garza, senior policy adviser for the education policy project at UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights and advocacy group, said research her organization has conducted shows first-generation status really shapes Latino students’ college experiences. While many first-generation Latino students lack the parental and family experience and come from low-income backgrounds, there also could be added challenges with language barriers — such as with their parents. 

“Not only is applying to college complex, but so is the financial aid process in and of itself for Latino students,” Garza said. “We also know that many Latino students come from low-income families so they are relying on the financial aid process. Given that it is a complex process, that has consequences for students and families without that experience or that support that they can have from family members or other people that they might be able to rely on.”

Kristy Saunders, associate director of the Husker Hub at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,  has a background in financial aid, new student orientation programming, and retention programming for first-generation college students. Saunders wrote her thesis on first-generation students’ experiences with the FAFSA, and noted that some Latino students feel imposter syndrome because they’re having such a tough time trying to complete the FAFSA, and question whether they’re ready for college.  

“We lose sight that this is oftentimes the first steps into the college experience, and it can be very isolating,” Saunders said. “And if the student already feels like they're failing at this part of it … they can definitely feel like this isn't the right path for them.” 

Financial aid offices and administrators can help ease the burden for first-generation students, especially those who are Latino, by digging into the cause of confusion, rather than putting the stress on their shoulders. 

“We need to be able to follow up with [first-generation students],” Saunders said. “Okay, we've returned this document three times and we're saying the students aren’t doing it correctly. What are we not communicating? What is the student facing right now? Are they trying to translate a financial aid document into Spanish?” 

Garza noted that persistent financial insecurity profoundly affects Latino first-generation students' higher education journey, from which types of loans they take, to whether they decide to attend a community college or a four-year institution. 

“Even when they're in college, we know that from semester to semester, they're making decisions over and over again about whether to stay enrolled because of financial challenges that might be coming up,” Garza said. “Because we know that there is this constant competition between family and living expenses, and the expenses associated with going to college. So that financial pressure really weighs on students, whether they consider leaving college or whether it's temporarily or permanently.”

One solution to help Latino first-generation students is for institutions to offer emergency aid to help those students with unexpected expenses. 

“Whether it's like your car breaking down or a medical expense, these expenses can really be a game changer for Latino students,” Garza said. “They might be in college and enrolled and have a big expense come up and actually have to leave school because they really have to make some of those trade offs in terms of costs.” 

More Than Tutoring — Institutions Create Wraparound Services

Institutions across the country are running or creating programs that are meant to target financial relief for first generation students. Beyond just providing aid, some institutions are creating programs that give students and their families one-on-one access with financial aid counseling. 

At Rockford University in Illinois, the institution created a “Regents First” program in fall 2021, which gives first-generation students a peer mentor, a college life skills coach, and a financial aid coach to help them throughout their first academic year. The program continues after the students move into their next year and gives all student in the program a stipend to purchase course materials during each academic year.

Karen Walker, the Regents First program director, said the program was designed out of observing the challenges and needs of first-generation students. Currently, the program serves 27 students, 11 of whom are in their second year after continuing the program from its origin last year.

“The program was designed to have wraparound services,” Walker said. “It wasn't just tutoring — it was college life skills coaching, and working one-on-one with an adult professional that can help you set goals and help you create a success plan, and it was having a peer mentor who's also a first-generation college student who has successfully navigated their first year. It's also in addition to that, having a financial aid coach who can help you when you get an email that talks about your tuition is past due.”

Stacy Simms, assistant director of student administrative services and student loan coordinator, is one of the financial aid coaches for the program. As a financial aid coach, Simms meets with students and parents in the program during the summer to introduce herself in case they need help with financial aid in the future. 

Additionally, Simms regularly speaks with students in the program, such as sending a reminder email to students that the FAFSA is open on October 1, and often meets with students one-on-one if they have any questions or issues. 

“I find it very beneficial for the students because they know where they can go to ask the questions,” Simms said. “I always tell them that there is no silly question because I probably already asked it, honestly. I like to tie in my experiences as a first-generation first-year student as well and think, ‘What's going on in their mind?’”

On the West Coast, the University of California San Diego has for almost a decade run its Chancellor’s Associates Scholars Program (CASP), which aims to provide local admitted, high achieving students from underserved families with the opportunity to attend the university tuition-free and without taking out student loans. Currently, the program has about 1,100 students registered. UC San Diego also hosts a Student Success Coaching program, which provides one-on-one peer coaching for first-generation students. According to UC San Diego, the program serves 14% of the 40,483 student population.

Bronwyn Garrison, assistant director of financial aid and scholarships at UC San Diego, said first-generation students, along with other students in the scholars program, can receive $10,000 per year from the CASP scholarship along with other benefits, such as individualized financial aid and academic counseling, priority enrollment, guaranteed housing, and faculty and peer mentoring. 

“In addition to the financial aid piece, the program looks holistically to provide support beyond financial aid on the academic side,” Garrison said.

Garrison notes that the FAFSA can be overwhelming and intimidating to first-generation students, which is why its’ important the CASP provides financial aid coaching for students. 

“Just knowing that you have to complete the FAFSA puts a lot of pressure on students and their families, because they know this is incredibly critical,” Garrison said. “Having someone there to be able to answer questions, as you read through it, I think, is very helpful to get past that."


Publication Date: 10/6/2022

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