A first-generation student is somebody who’s the first in their family to attend postsecondary education. It’s an exciting opportunity, but it also highlights the fact that not all students are on a level playing field when entering college.
Family members who’ve attended and graduated from postsecondary education will be able to support the next generations in their family as they transition to a new way of socialising and learning. From what to do in class to taking advantage of office hours and funding opportunities, these students will likely have a built-in support system from the start.
On the other hand, first-gen students are often left to figure out a lot of the subtle nuances of college life on their own. This can create a disadvantage for these students who’ve worked hard to achieve acceptance into postsecondary education. In fact, the statistics show that graduation rates among first-gen students are typically lower than those of other students.
This contrast between first-gen students and their peers is often referred to as the hidden curriculum in higher education.
What Is the Hidden Curriculum?
The hidden curriculum “refers to the unwritten, unofficial and often unintended lessons, values and perspectives that students learn in school…[and] consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.”
From how students engage themselves during class to how they interact with instructors and other classmates, the hidden curriculum can take many forms.
Since first-gen students have never been exposed to many of these situations and don’t have family with experience in this realm to help guide them, they’re often at a disadvantage in relation to their peers.
However, there are ways to help improve the success rate for first-gen students. Taking advantage of personalised learning in higher education is one such way.
Mentorship, Community and Funding
There are already several areas of support in existence across the higher education landscape that promote first-generation student success. Mentorship, leaning on the community of current first-gen students and alumni, and targeted funding are three ways to help personalise a first-gen student’s learning experience and foster success.
Mentorship and Community
Matching a first-gen mentor with an incoming first-gen student is a great way to not only build a personal, supportive relationship, but also help develop a model of personalised learning.
The Dell Scholars programme offers financial and peer support for lower-income students. Quite often, first-generation students also come from lower incomes, as their families feel the impact of finding work without postsecondary education. One of the pillars of support this programme offers is peer-to-peer mentorship from the community of current scholars or recent grads who help build individualised plans for their mentees.
Mentors are an excellent resource for first-gen students. They can do everything from providing guidance on funding opportunities and application tips, to helping students seek mental health support if they start to feel overwhelmed.
Some colleges and organisations have created first-generation mentorship programmes in recognition of the benefits they offer students:
- The University of Southern California offers a First Generation Mentor Programme that pairs first-gen alumni with current students.
- Stanford Medicine has a 1st Generation Mentorship Programme providing networking and advocacy through their mentorship.
- Class Action offers a first-gen mentoring programme to connect former and current students to provide needed guidance.
- The First Generation Network hosts a mentorship programme to support students studying in the field of law.
By leaning on the community of first-gen students and alumni, mentorship opportunities create not only a personal bond but also a learning plan that’s personalised to the students’ needs.
Funding for First-Generation Students
Another personal approach to supporting first-generation students is through funding distributed specifically to them.
- Odyssey Scholarships: The University of Chicago offers several scholarships—made possible from an anonymous donor called “Homer”—available to low-income or first-generation students.
- Fannie & Sam Constantino First Generation Scholarship Programme: For motivated and academically inspired first-generation students, St. John Fisher University offers scholarships that cover half of their tuition plus room and board.
- First Generation Scholarship: Colorado Mesa University offers a $1,000 annual scholarship for incoming first-gen students.
Build a Unique Learning Path Through Technology
In addition to community and funding, technology is another great way to help build a personalised learning path for the unique needs of first-generation students.
A powerful learning management system (LMS) provides colleges with the opportunity to build personalised and flexible learning paths for students. For first-generation students, this can help scaffold different needs when entering postsecondary education.
An LMS can also help indicate when these students may be struggling, letting instructors and administrators know they may need some intervention to help get them back on track.
Three ways an LMS like D2L Brightspace can support personalised learning include:
- Gated learning: This tactic helps structure course delivery so students don’t move on to the next concept until they have a firm grasp on the current topic. Release conditions automatically release enrichment or remediation content, creating custom learning paths.
- Learner choice and responsibility: Checklists—assessment tools that can help instructors and learners gauge progress—highlight important areas of a course and hold students accountable. They can also inspire organisation, release content and allow students to choose a preferred assignment type.
- Improved outcomes: If students don’t log in to the LMS or if they show signs of struggle, automated workflows can trigger actions to alert instructors or send reminders to students to help keep them on track.
Finding the Right Support for First-Generation Students
It’s important to make sure first-generation students—the first in the family to hit the milestone of attending postsecondary education—are set up for success.
Providing options and awareness to these students will make a personalised learning experience for them that can help lead to the success they deserve.