Wednesday, May 8, 2024

College Counseling for First Generation Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There isn’t a lot of research on the best way to talk about college with students who would be the first in their family to attend, but it’s a research field that’s growing. The Journal of College Access is a space devoted to such research (full disclosure—I am a founding editor), so I’ve had a chance to peruse some quality work on this topic. Combined with conversations with professionals who work with these students, here’s a quick guided tour of things to do to shape a college counseling curriculum for first gens:

Start early Students who only know about colleges thanks to the NCAA and what they’ve “heard” about Harvard need a full-blown introduction to college—what it is, the kinds of colleges that exist, and why people go.

For high school counselors, the challenge here is that this education for first gens needs to start way before ninth grade—ideally, no later than fifth-or sixth-grade. This means working with your K-8 counseling colleagues on college awareness—or, if push comes to shove, going down to their buildings to present it yourself. It’s better if they buy in, but either way, it has to get out there, and early.

Involve parents A good number of parents who didn’t go to college are convinced of three things:

  • They can’t afford college—any college
  • Their child doesn’t have the grades for college
  • College is a waste of money if their child doesn’t know what they want to major in

You likely address all these topics with your 9-12 students when you talk college, and the same presentations will work with parents and younger students. Hint: Some of these parents will not come to a night presentation held at school. Instead, think about a Zoom presentation, or a presentation in the mall, the laundromat—or the local bar. Wherever it’s offered in person, bring raffle prizes, serve food (pizza works), offer childcare, and include case studies of students from your school who went on to college—there’s nothing like familiar faces to encourage families to open up.

Affordability, Part 2 A nice add-in for first gen presentations is a walkthrough of the Federal Student Aid Estimator and a Net Price Calculator. The Estimator asks 10 questions that give an estimate—yes, it’s an estimate—of how much Federal aid the student could get. Net Price Calculators are college-based estimators of aid the student might get at that college—take a look at this one for Michigan State.

These are both estimators, and some students and families may jump at the idea of loans, so you need to talk about what that means. It’s also wise to direct them to a college that’s more affordable for your average family, since the goal is to educate, not intimidate.

Take College Classes in High School The very best way to help students understand what college is all about is to have them go to college while in high school. Programs like Early College and Dual Enrollment allow students to do this, with the school district typically paying for all related costs.

It’s best if these classes are offered on a college campus—that offers the student the full experience. It’s also important to work with the student to take classes that will likely transfer for college credit when they go to college after high school. Not nearly all classes transfer, so work closely with the students to choose wisely. If they can take 3 or 4 college classes in high school, for free, they’ll see college as something doable, because they’ve already done it.

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