North Central College Commits to First-generation Students
Nearly 40% of students at North Central College identify as first-generation college students.
James H. Whitney III Ed.D., Mercer County Community College / The Center / March 07, 2023
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.
Inventory current student supports and survey how many first-generation students are using these services. You may find that many of your first-generation students are using more general services than first-generation-specific services.
If your campus has a TRIO or EOP program, research their successes and consider how to scale up their best practices as a framework for your intentional universal design. In other words, don’t recreate the wheel. TRIO and EOP programs have evidence of over 50 years of success for low-income and first-generation students.
Create a campus alliance of stakeholders that includes more than student affairs/services professionals when planning (IT, finance, academic affairs, dining, legal, etc.) when thinking about intentional universal design. Remember non-student affairs offices play an important role in campus policy-making and support. Their influence and support can be critical to the success of first-generation students on your campus.
Do the campus's current support practices and policies deliver an “equity mindset” of education? Are supports for students truly holistic and have the capacity to consider a student journey before and during college? Will the redesign or implementation of any new support be flexible and anticipatory to deliver equity and ultimately meet students where they are?
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.
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.