Creating a Student-Ready Institution for First-Generation College Students

By Jeanine Cunningham

April 2023

First-generation college student success is often reduced to the assertion that a lack of intergenerational academic capital translates into difficulty navigating college. As noted in part one of this blog series, the first-generation label is often used as shorthand for a larger set of characteristics that affect a student’s college experience: focusing solely on the “first-generation” aspect of a college student’s identity erases intersectional complexities. Moreover, the assumption that college navigation hinges specifically on parent-educational status — whether as a continuing or first-generation student — reduces student success to a deficit-minded formula that allows institutions to avoid responsibility for being student ready.

To be student ready is to be prepared to match institutional support to student need. Just as there is not a singular definition of first-generation, there is not a single intervention that can reach the needs of all first-generation students on all campuses. In association with the implementation of California State University’s (CSU) Graduation Initiative 2025, many campuses across the system have seen equity gaps in graduation rates among first-generation students start to close as programs and services supporting first-generation student success intensify. The commonality among those programs and services is that they are driven by campus-specific data and targeted to address campus-specific needs. 

How can staff, faculty, and administrators create a campus culture that supports and encourages institution-level programs and services for supporting the needs of first-generation college students? We offer the following strategies: 

Really Get to Know Your Student Population  

What are the intersecting attributes of first-generation college students on your campus, in your department, and (if applicable) in your classrooms? 

Understanding both the quantitative composition and qualitative attributes of your students is central to supporting institutional student readiness. Seeking out institutional data is an excellent place to develop your campuses’ big demographic picture, but listening to students, particularly historically under-resourced and underserved students (e.g., first-generation, low-income, Black, Indigenous, and people of color), expands the frame.

Consider taking action toward systematizing practices of better getting to know the needs and concerns faced by the first-generation students in your orbit, without singling anyone out. Actions such as distributing semesterly department surveys, building in a few minutes each week during class time for temperature checks, or scheduling regular listening sessions to touch base with student workers create opportunities for establishing feedback loops that will surface students’ dynamic needs and provide you with the opportunity to respond. The key is doing what you can, within your role, to institutionalize, elevate, and act upon the sharing of student voice

Acknowledge Institutional and Personal Barriers

What barriers does your campus impose on first-generation college students? How do you work to eliminate those barriers? How can you work to eliminate those barriers?

Becoming aware of the barriers that hinder first-generation college students’ educational mobility means examining institutional and personal biases serviced by the structures of tradition. Hidden curriculum refers to the implicit, unwritten rules for academic success, established and imparted through the ways in which education is structured. Research on the concept of hidden curriculum illuminates how educational inequities are exacerbated by institutions operating under a non-reflexive status quo. For example, some long-established classroom practices may favor particular learning styles or cultural perspectives leading to the reproduction of success of students from dominant groups who already operate within those frames of reference. Outside of the classroom, hidden curriculum may translate into academic opportunities that are inaccessible to those unaware of where to look or how to ask for such prospects. 

Students who have not been primed to navigate the unwritten rules of academic success may not even realize the barriers they face. Some universities explicitly draw students’ attention to hidden curriculum by offering courses or workshops to help students navigate barriers. Other institutions use student ready strategies to build in more explicit opportunities for mentorship, encourage the development of culturally responsive classrooms, and provide multi-faceted student services, therefore placing the impetus for breaking through barriers on the shoulders of the university. 

Foster Belonging

How does your campus develop a sense of “belonging” among the campus community? 

A recent study suggests that first-generation college students are more likely to seek out help from their established networks rather than asking for help from people and services with which they are unfamiliar. If first-generation students are turning to their networks for guidance, it follows that practitioners who want to build a student-ready institution should work to set students up early with the kinds of networks that will help foster their academic development. Encouraging students to get involved with new student clubs, first-generation alumni networks, and professional organizations early on in their academic career helps embed students in the helpful spaces that foster belonging.

What does it mean to feel as though one belongs somewhere? This can be a difficult question to answer because feeling a sense of belonging is an emotional practice that cannot be forced; and though belonging cannot be forced, it can be nurtured. Were you a first-generation college student? If so, actively declaring your first-generation status is great for role modeling, building belonging, and providing students with a sense of possibilities for the future. Even if you are not a first-generation college student, making students feel welcome and worthy of belonging in your networks is a great way to provide support.

Additional questions for reflection:

  • How does your college define first-generation? In what ways does that definition help or hinder services provided to first-generation students?
  • Where is your college serving first-generation students well?

The final blog in this series will present a practitioner case study highlighting work with first-generation college students.