Going to college is an expectation in many families. For first-generation and low-income students it is normally a dream – insubstantial and vanishing in the cold light of day. With hard work, encouragement and guidance, the dream may take shape into hope. That magical day an acceptance letter appears in the mailbox or an email marks a change in the trajectory of a family’s future.
Many were moved by the research post I shared https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/future-of-highered/research/amy-s-story-the-needs-of-first-generation-rural-students.
I will never forget the day I looked over Amy’s shoulder as she stared at the online report of her new ACT score. 19! Her composite had climbed a full 5 points. She was still under in Math and Science but she had a 19! ‘What does it mean?’ she asked in bewilderment of my congratulations. ‘You can get in’ I smiled. Her world upended. Tears dripped down her face, ‘I can go to college’.
Getting the letter to validate her acceptance was one of the happiest days her family had ever had. For many a support system for students, the story ends there. The student goes off to college…happily ever after.
But for first-generation/low-income particularly rural students, the hurtles are just beginning.
As most post-secondary institutions will tell you, preventing summer melt (Summer Melt Supporting Low-Income Students through the Transition to College by Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page, 2014) and retaining particularly non-residential students successfully goes far deeper than academic readiness and financial aid availability. It becomes a matter of access to opportunity to support and advisement.
According to Dr. Castleman, between 10% -40% of high schools students graduating from with a college acceptance letter in hand, fail to show up for classes the following fall.
First-generation students and those who are a distance from any campus are often uncomfortable and unfamiliar with college campuses and protocol. Students on campus usually look to each other and on campus support systems to answer their questions. Commuter and Online students either don't have this access or, more often, don't take advantage of it. An additional phenomenon of first generation, low-income and often rural students is the reluctance to ask for help. Many are afraid they will be looked at as not belonging – so they just don’t ask. When they quit or fail, or just never start, no one is there to follow up with them.
What if… Higher Education institutions worked collaboratively to have a community focused College Success Specialist or Coach who work with a caseload of online and/or first year students from any college who live in a given community. The Specialist could make regularly scheduled support visits to communities in rural areas, for example, to provide support for students in issues such as meeting deadlines, interpreting information requests, how to get help or tutoring, enhancing and reinforcing topics covered in a student’s orientation and beyond.
For example: On the second and fourth Tuesday afternoons at McDonalds or the Public Library where there is free Wi-Fi, the Coach could assist students with anything from how to email their advisor or what is a bursar to how to use Blackboard to upload assignments to help with the FAFSA (financial aid application) or how to read a syllabus. It wouldn’t matter what college a given student attended as the majority of the information is for college success in general. If specific to a given class or campus protocol, the Coach could have the student log onto their campus account and help them find what they need.
The Coach could also advise families and encourage those looking to re-enter educational pursuits at any age. As a free service provided by grant or multi-college shared funding, families would not feel they couldn’t afford individual appointments nor would they need to find transportation to get to the university or college campus to feel supported and more confident about how to navigate the process. If a student couldn’t connect with the Coach in person, scheduled support conversations could be made by phone.
Support would need to be often enough to catch potential issues before they impacted a student’s GPA, financial aid, or scheduling availability. Participating colleges and high schools would be asked to recommend that students at least meet with the coach once during the summer between high school and college and once per semester. If students, would prefer to go the campus to work with support programs they would be encouraged to do so. Services could be tapered off as student confidence rises.
An additional strength of this idea is that the student and possibly their family will develop a relationship with a caring adult who can be available as needed in an area within their comfort level, in a local space they know well. It would also allow online only students to meet others locally who they might connect with into study groups or future carpools.