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Supporting Minority and First-Gen Students: Colleges Can Do Better

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Throughout the years, colleges and universities have used significant financial resources to recruit minority and first-generation college students. While efforts to increase diversity on campuses are admirable, schools are often lacking in helping these students feel welcomed and supported, leaving them to fend for themselves upon arrival. Proper academic preparation, mentoring, and financial assistance are critical components of a successful transition to college for minority and first-generation students. Institutions need to address these problems as they can create substantial barriers to student success. Otherwise, students may arrive on campus and struggle to acclimate. 

Before they even set foot on a college campus, first-generation students often face significant obstacles in understanding how the application process and financial aid work. As the first in their families to attend college, they can’t obtain proper guidance from their parents on the process of applying and have to conduct individual research on applications, scholarship opportunities, financial aid, and degree options. Because of this, students sometimes make choices that seem convenient, such as attending a predatory for-profit college — a choice that almost always backfires later on. 

Students are usually drawn to for-profit colleges because they hope to increase their marketability for jobs with a flexible online degree. However, they are often plunged into debt with a degree that doesn’t create ample career opportunities as expected. This is if they even receive the degree since for-profit colleges have such low graduation rates compared to four-year institutions. Additionally, when students enroll in a for-profit college based on the promise of a “valuable” and flexible degree, they are often unknowingly signing up for debt. Just 8 percent of students are enrolled in America’s 697 for-profit colleges, but these students account for 30 percent of loan defaults.

First-generation students are also more likely to come from underrepresented backgrounds, such as being female, older, a racial minority, or low-income, and for-profit colleges exploit this knowledge to recruit them. Since first-generation students are more likely to come from these underrepresented groups, they often arrive on campus with fewer resources and greater academic needs than their wealthier peers. Many of these students don’t want to openly identify themselves because of the lasting stigma associated with being first-generation. Minority students (some of whom happen to be first-generation) are more likely to experience discrimination, hate crimes, institutional racism, and feelings of alienation and isolation. Because of this, higher education institutions have the responsibility to create an environment that fosters student growth through personal support. 

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) currently deliver superior outcomes for Black students because they practice “intrusive intervention” to provide students with individual attention. Because of this, faculty and students are more closely connected at HBCUs than other institutions in American higher education. This individualized support found at HBCUs is correlated with higher student graduation rates and success. Other institutions should adopt this model by facilitating greater opportunities for first-generation and minority students and creating an environment where students can form personal relationships with faculty and mentors.  

Institutions should make it a priority to professionally or financially incentivize faculty to reach out to minority and first-generation students. Professors’ salaries are strongly correlated with the amount of time they devote to research, so the ones who prioritize teaching currently make the least. Colleges should offer higher salaries to professors who actively reach out to minority and first-generation students to offer supplementary or remedial instruction. 

Instead of blaming students’ supposed lack of talent or effort for academic struggle, institutions should hold faculty accountable for making themselves aware of — and empathetic towards — the challenges these students may face. This will establish a better support system and enhance academic outcomes, especially since many students are taking out loans and making additional familial and financial sacrifices for their education.

Another way to support minority and first-generation students is to implement transition programs that connect these students to support networks from the moment they set foot on campus. Faculty advisors and older student mentors from these groups should reach out to support new students by providing academic counseling and periodic check-ins akin to the HBCU model. These services should be culturally sensitive and institutions should hire more faculty and advisors of color to prevent students from feeling alienated or isolated. 

In recent years, the operating principle of higher education in America has been how to increase, pay for, and sustain student access. If increasing and sustaining access for students is truly a priority, institutions need to use creative strategies to address such obstacles. Meeting the various challenges faced by minority and first-generation students requires institutions to take accountability through direct action, support, and communication to support the unique journeys of students. 

Hadley is a first-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Though undecided, she is currently interested in economics, mathematics, and psychology. In addition, she loves tennis, singing, skiing, and hanging out with her dog, Titan.
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