Advice & News

November 7, 2023

Thoughtfully Pursuing First-Gen Students Recruitment


This summer, the Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling changed college admissions and how campuses, specifically selective institutions, recruit students. With these changes, many campuses are seeking new ways to diversify their student body.

Nationwide, the term "first-generation student" is defined as undergraduates whose parents did not complete a bachelor's degree. In a 2019 study by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, 56% of undergraduate students reported being first-generation. Additionally, the study found that first-generation students were more ethnically and racially diverse than their continuing-generation peers. Considering these factors, first-generation students have become a highly sought-after group for campuses to pursue.

Dr. Stephanie Bannister is the assistant vice president for the Center for First-generation Student Success at NASPA. A leading expert and advocate for the unique needs of first-generation students, Dr. Bannister draws upon her 25 years of student affairs leadership experience to help students navigate the complex world of higher education.

As institutions begin to prioritize and actively recruit first-generation students, Dr. Bannister celebrates the diversity that first-generation students bring to a campus.

"First-generation is a unique complex intersectional identity; that is why we're hearing a lot about recruiting first-generation students," said Bannister.

When campuses begin to actively recruit first-generation applicants, they must recognize that the needs of first-generation students vary significantly from the needs of continuing-generation students. However, when we simplify and streamline processes to work for first-generation students, all students will benefit!

Identify Your First-Gen Students

Through the Center for First-Generation Student Success, Bannister and her team work with 349 institutions across the country to create campuses that help first-generation students succeed. One way they're doing so? Ensuring data is accurate!

"Institutions should start early to identify who their first-generation students are and [then] work to create a sense of belonging before the first day of class," said Bannister.

Admissions teams can support the identification of first-generation students through adding a field on their application that clearly asks whether a student's parents graduated with a four-year college degree. Phrasing the question in this way ensures that students who may not know they are first-generation can be identified.

When campuses ensure that all faculty and staff can identify who their first-generation students are, they can align students with resources and see gaps where they need to communicate more proactively going into a student's second year. These data points can also highlight a need for new resources or programming tailored to first-generation students.

However, Bannister recommends this data should be adjustable as campuses learn more about their first-generation students.

"Campuses are working hard to make data available not just on the front end," she said. "They are learning things about their students once they arrive for orientation. They may not have marked on the app that they were first-generation because they didn't know! But if we design really thoughtful onboarding, a student [can] learn what it means to be first-generation and say, 'hey that's me!' and we can update our data in real-time."

Experiencing Campus

Many first-gen students and families have never visited a college campus. Often, first-generation students lack the financial support or transportation required to travel to campus. Colleges can support first-generation applicants by providing multiple opportunities for them to access and experience life at the institution.

Virtual campus tours are an excellent option to provide first-generation students and families. These no-cost opportunities help students to see academic buildings, residence halls, and campus amenities without leaving home. Additionally, virtual tours can clearly highlight the resources and support for first-generation students and can help establish a sense of belonging for applicants.

Campus visit teams can also work with local programs dedicated to first-generation students and develop visit days or events specific to their needs. A great example is inviting local or regional TRIO Pre-College and GEAR UP programs for a campus art or sporting event and including a campus tour during their visit.

Providing multiple opportunities for first-generation students to see themselves on campus aids in fostering a sense of belonging for students and contributes to the likelihood that they will enroll at an institution.

"When we see [institutions] working on that priority of who are my students and how do I tailor opportunities to these students, really powerful things happen," encouraged Bannister.

Simplify Shared Language

It is no secret that institutions and higher education have a shared language that can be unfamiliar and confusing. Between various acronyms, office names, forms, and processes, simplifying the shared campus language for first-generation students will benefit everyone on campus!

Bannister acknowledges the complexity of higher education and can relate to the challenges faced by first-generation students.

"I find it humbling, given my background in higher education, to be confused on behalf of my [college-aged] children, which is a reminder that we are operating in a system not built for those living and learning in it," cautioned Bannister.

A great example Bannister provided was the long-adopted term of 'office hours.' While this term makes sense to the faculty and staff who work within the institution, it can be confusing to a student with no institutional knowledge. For instance, a first-generation student may miss opportunities to connect with faculty because they assume that 'office hours' means time when professors are in their offices working.

"If we renamed office hours, student hours, what would happen?" posited Bannister. Perhaps this would clarify for both first-generation and continuing-generation students that this time is for them to meet with and get help from faculty.

Institutions should recognize that there are systems and processes involved in higher education that can dissuade or even create barriers for students who lack knowledge of how to navigate them.

"It's hard to know the right questions to ask along the way because institutions are complex and filled with language that makes it difficult for students to access the support and resources they need. If we make navigating institutions easier, policies and procedures clearer, [and] jargon less complicated, every student, faculty, and staff will benefit!" explained Bannister.

Since most first-generation students do not have the historical knowledge of higher education processes, they also lack information on the necessary steps students should take when selecting, applying to, and enrolling at a college. Admissions teams can help ease confusion by creating glossaries of frequently used terms. These glossaries can clearly define terms for first-generation students and connect them to the corresponding campus resource.

Final Thoughts

"First-generation students have taught me about resilience, determination, and a commitment to navigating complexity because of a deep belief that an education can transform their family, a generation, and their community," said Bannister.

As more institutions begin to recruit and eventually enroll more first-generation college students, it is critical that all campus stakeholders adopt an unwavering commitment to their success.

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