Supporting First-Generation and Low-Income Students Through Graduation

Last year, hundreds of thousands of first-generation and low-income college students (FGLI) in the US struggled to pay exorbitant fees for a virtual education. At the same time, they were separated from both on-campus resources and the in-person support provided by faculty fellow students. 

For these young adults, being accepted into college is a major accomplishment that can open the door to many opportunities they might otherwise never experience. In this article, we’ll examine why there should be more comprehensive support for students apart from the acceptance letter. 

Barriers to FGLI Student Success

Despite some progress, there are still many difficulties for first-generation and low-income college students after they complete their college applications and are admitted to an institution. For instance, FGLI students:

1. Miss out on Financial Aid

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only around 65% of high school seniors complete a FAFSA each year. First-generation and low-income students are less likely to complete an application than their peers with more resources.

Additionally, a study by New America and uAspire found that in financial aid offer letters, many colleges use inconsistent terminology. They do not use clear language about costs. They also tend to lump different types of financial aid, like grants, federal work-study, and loans, all together. This can lead to misunderstandings that prevent these students from accessing necessary aid. 

2. Are statistically disadvantaged 

Compared to students whose parents had earned an undergraduate degree, FGLI students are more likely to leave postsecondary education without earning their degree. This is according to a study by the NCES.

Many experience poverty or other socioeconomic factors that impede their ability to achieve postsecondary credentials. This can lead to reverberating financial setbacks like defaulted loans, which never go away. 

3. Lack of mentors and professional networks

Disadvantaged students tend to lack guidance about college and career development from family members. They are often forced to build a professional network from scratch, on top of managing academic coursework.

How Schools Can Better Support FGLI Students

 We need more support for first-generation and low-income college students. Change at the federal level is slow-moving, though, which is why this process is going to need to begin at the local level, on the campuses that these students will soon call home.

1. Organize mentorship early

Mentorship is a key part of the college entrance and navigation experience. Where mentorship has traditionally not been available to first-generation and low-income students, schools have an opportunity to bolster their graduation statistics by filling that gap. 

2. Provide financial aid workshops

First-generation and low-income students may not be aware of all the financial aid opportunities that are available to them. To address this, schools might host informational workshops before students apply for college. Some topics schools could include:

a. Understanding the cost of college

b. How to complete the FAFSA 

c. The types of Federal Aid (including their differences and requirements)

d. How to apply for scholarships and grants

3.  Improve accessibility to school resources

Many colleges already have resources available for first-generation and low-income students. However, many students are unaware that they exist.

Colleges could make a greater effort to ensure students know where to find help. For instance, schools can introduce campus resources during orientation, provide them in dorm buildings and classrooms, and list them on the school website. Some of these resources may include:

  • the career center
  • alumni center and network 
  • the financial aid office

Also, not every student will receive guidance about essential career development skills, such as how to write a resume and cover letter, nor be offered career development classes that every student can attend, such as through the career center or at orientation.

Taking the First Step

FGIL students overcome many challenges in the process of applying and being accepted into colleges, but their struggles do not stop there.

It is in a school’s best interest to ensure that these students obtain their degree. This will ultimately open doors to opportunity and greater financial stability. To make this dream a reality, though, many students are going to need additional help. Colleges and universities need to be more proactive about linking students to the resources they need that will help them ensure long-term success.