Harry’s difficult adjustment is just one example of the many obstacles first-generation and minority students confront each year that don’t typically plague their second- and third-generation peers. Extensive studies show that low-income and first-generation students are more likely to be academically behind, sometimes several years in core subjects. They’re more likely to live at home or off-campus. They’re less likely to have gained AP credit and more likely to have to take uncredited remedial courses. And they’re more likely to face serious financial hurdles.
These challenges are sometimes so formidable that studies say that only 8 percent of low-income (many of whom are first-generation) students will graduate college by age 25. Social integration is only one piece of the puzzle for these students, and for Harry—like many other students—combating this transition can be easier with the help of older peers, teachers and guiding professors who act as mentors. While the definition of “mentor” varies, there are both informal and formal structures that have the potential to influence first-generation college persistence and graduation. Armed with this understanding, many secondary and post-secondary institutions have created programming to better support and mentor first-generation students.
In Chicago, The Noble Network of Charter Schools collects extensive data on their alumni to determine what students need in order to persist and graduate from college. Last year, nine of the campuses graduated seniors and each of these nine schools has a college counselor and an alumni coordinator—allowing students to have extensive support through the college application, matriculation, and transition process.
“It’s very intentionally called college counseling,” Matt Niksch, Noble’s Chief College Officer, tells me. “They’re not kids anymore, [and] a lot of it is about helping young adults determine the right choice for them.”
Noble schools look to a college’s institutional minority graduation rate as a predictor of student success, but even these statistics can’t always foresee what different students will face.
Caroline Kelly, a college counselor at Noble’s Pritzker College Prep, categorizes the challenges into “different buckets. One is financial, one is motivation, one is family, one is academics, and one is social integration.”
Many first-generation students, like Harry, struggle socially when they arrive on a college campus only to find that they have trouble identifying with their wealthier peers, or they feel a distinct “otherness” that they didn’t experience in high school. Others adjust socially but find themselves paying for their education for the first time in their lives.
“In high school your education was given to you for free in most cases,” says Mac, a current junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Mac is an alumnus of a traditional public school on the Southside of Chicago, where he participated in OneGoal, a teacher-led college persistence program for low-income students that provides school-based support for students over the course of three years. OneGoal teachers begin work with students during their junior year of high school and bridge the gap between high school and college with a curriculum that continues into each student’s first-year of college.