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Welcome to the Mentor Learning Center

Research about 1st generation college students

Please read this article to explore some current challenges first-generation college students may encounter and how the program model empowers students and mentors to face those hurdles. 

Introduction

The process of navigating the college application process is incredibly complicated, especially for first-generation college-bound students who may not have an understanding of the college process and the myriad steps necessary to apply and enroll in college. Research has shown that traditionally underrepresented students do not have a broad understanding of the postsecondary landscape, often apply to and enroll in schools that are not a “best fit” and have significantly lower graduation rates, and do not take the steps necessary to enroll in college prepared for success. In order to ensure that our students have the greatest opportunity for postsecondary success, the program provides curriculum and case management to support pairs in project managing the college application, financial aid, and transition process.

College-readiness research and programs often tend to conflate first-generation college students with students of color and/or students from low-income backgrounds. While there is certainly an overlap among these three groups, a catch-all categorization can confound the unique challenges that first-generation college students face. As high school student Amena shares, “I know that in order for me to understand college I have to be shown and guided by people older than me or who have the knowledge of what is required to go to college.” For a first generation college student that access to college knowledge may look different from that of their non-first generation counterparts. 

What are some of the theories that explain challenges a first-generation college student may face?

Post-secondary Undermatch

Undermatching occurs when a student may have the academic credentials that would allow them to access a college or university that is more selective than the postsecondary alternative they choose. A recent study by the Advocacy and Policy Center of College Board concluded that undermatching is very prevalent; about forty percent of high school graduates each year choose to attend a less selective college or university. According to the same study first-generation students, low-and middle-income students, males and Hispanic students were most likely to undermatch. First-generation students are more likely to attend a less selective college or university because of financial concerns, geography and misinformation about the academic and financial requirements of college versus their non-first-generation college student peers.

First-generation college students are less likely to have the knowledge or resources necessary to prepare for post-secondary education, from the admission process to college transition. Furthermore, students who undermatch are less likely to earn a degree in a timely fashion and tend to have worse labor market outcomes. Strategies to mitigate post-secondary undermatch include dismantling information barriers and ensuring that students have an understanding of the full range of postsecondary options so that they can develop a strong college list and eventually enroll in a “best fit” institution. Students also need to develop a stronger understanding of the financial aid process, including understanding the distinction between the “sticker” price and net price of colleges.

Summer Melt

The summer after high school graduation is a challenging time for many students who are college-bound, especially if they are first-generation college students. As a result of a number of potential obstacles, many students who intend to enroll at a given college when they graduate high school either change their minds over the summer and enroll in a different college, or fail to enroll in college at all. This is known as the "summer melt". Nationally, the summer melt affects 10-20% of college eligible students and disproportionately affects low-income and first-generation college students.

During the summer between high school and college, students face a number of obstacles to college enrollment. From resolving financial aid issues to interpreting confusing communication around registration, students must navigate the college enrollment process at the exact moment when their traditional high school supports fade away and before they are formally connected to their college campus. As a result, many do not receive the support they need to complete the required tasks successfully, and a small obstacle can result in failure to matriculate.

In Providence, RI, an innovative network of high schools conducted a study to explore if college counseling would encourage low-income high school graduates to successfully enroll in college. Results from the study showed that students who were offered and received summer assistance from their high school counselors were fourteen percent more likely to enroll immediately in college than students that were not offered additional support. 

Impostor Phenomenon

The impostor phenomenon is characterized by first-generation students believing that highly selective institutions made a mistake by accepting them. This may lead the students to assume that they took the place of someone else who was more deserving and that they don’t actually belong on a college campus. The impostor phenomenon can result in students disengaging from the college community and not engaging in behaviors that are critical for college success, such as accessing campus-based academic resources, attending office hours, or asking questions in class. Colleges and universities should take steps to create an inclusive environment for first-generation students.

How does the program tackle these issues?

College graduate as a mentor: Our primary intervention is in the form of one-to-one mentoring relationships in which all of our students are matched with a college graduate. Jeff Davis (2010) points out that most first-generation college students need “a guide” and not an “expert” to introduce them to the culture of college. While college knowledge incorporates much of the formal knowledge of the college process there is also an additional layer of “insider knowledge” college students use to navigate the college space. For non-first-generation college students, this insider knowledge and culture is passed down through families over generations. For the first-generation students we serve, our mentors often take on the role of trying to bridge this gap. DuBois, Holloway, Valentine, and Cooper (2002) found that “discussing college with mentors, especially those who have attended themselves, can generate interest in going to college among students whose parents have not gone to college.”

Curriculum: Our curriculum provides our mentees with the opportunity to build college knowledge and develop non-cognitive skills, while leveraging the power of the personal relationships established with their mentors. Research has shown the importance of non-cognitive skills in both academic and non-academic success. You can read more about “non-cogs” and the role they play in our curriculum here.

Staff support: Each of our mentee/mentor pairs is supported by a Program Manager (PM) throughout the duration of their high school match. Each PM is certified as a college counselor and works in tandem with the other college support structures and resources in place at the mentee’s school. Once a pair transitions to college, they are supported by College Success Counselors (CSCs). CSCs provide monthly talking points and resources that provide pairs with critical college knowledge. Another focus of the college-years program is on community building so that both our mentees and mentors have a network of support on which they can rely. Finally mentees are also offered task-based scholarships to reinforce the behaviors of successful college students, for example, registering for classes as soon as possible or joining a campus-based club.

Next Steps

Check out these articles and books to learn more about first-generation college students:

Summer Melt:

The Forgotten Summer: Does the Offer of College Counseling After High School Mitigate Summer Melt Among College-Intending, Low-Income High School Graduates?

Castleman, Benjamin, Page, Lindsay and Schooley, Korynn. Updated July 2013. 

Post-Secondary Undermatch:

Getting Into College: Postsecondary Academic Undermatch

Smith, Jonathan, Pender, Matea, Howell, Jessica and Hurwitz, Michael. April 2012 

College Board. Advocacy and Policy Center. Overview of Undermatch, Analyses and Research 

Impostor Phenomenon:

The First Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus Practice, and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success.

Jeff Davis. Stylus Publishing: Sterling, 2010. Pgs. 48-57.