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How can you #AdvocateFirstgen when specific programming for that population of students is not possible?

James H. Whitney III Ed.D., Mercer County Community College / The Center / March 07, 2023


Student Services Support Office

In 2008 The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education published a comprehensive report entitled “Moving beyond access: College success for low-income, first-generation students.” They found that low-income, first-generation students face many challenges that make it difficult for them to be successful in college. 15 years later “college success” for first-generation students remains a challenge. The challenges are heightened when coupled with socioeconomic status, systemic racism, and inadequate college preparation, to name a few. 

Colleges and universities across the country are making great gains in improving support for first-generation students. Many create centers, initiatives, programs, committees, and offices, or even expand diversity or success offices. These supports have received widespread notability or national recognition. It is my experience that these intentional varieties of support are very effective for first-generation students. However, they can change, reorganize, become minimized, or even non-essential based on institutional priorities at any given time. Causes can be a leadership change, budget deficit, or lack of general campus commitment to these efforts.  

Decision-makers on college campuses can avoid the failure of first-generation supports by using “intentional universal design”.

For those of us who have been in higher education for over a decade, we can attest to the evolving concept of student success. Decision-makers on college campuses can avoid the failure of first-generation supports by using “intentional universal design”. This approach, largely used at community colleges, directs the creation, re-design, and implementation of support services for all students while keeping a laser focus on the needs of first-generation students as a priority.  

Campus leaders should consider the following when thinking about using the intentional universal design approach: 

All of these are considerations to ponder when deciding about using intentional universal design to support first-generation students. I would encourage anyone reading this to read the full report by The Center on First-generation Students in Community and Technical Colleges to better understand “intentional universal design”. It has been my experience thus far that this approach can improve the journey of a first-generation student advocate and create more support for this population which is critical for educational equity. 


What strategies have helped you to champion first-generation students successfully? Share your perspective on first-generation student advocacy and pertinent policy issues across social media with #AdvocateFirstgen.


About the Author

James H. Whitney III M.S.W., Ed.D., is the assistant vice president of academic affairs at Mercer County Community College. He also serves as a member of the Center for First-generation Student Success Advocacy Group.