Twenty-five years ago, the notion that first-generation college students have different needs than others wasn’t even ‘a thing.’ As a whole, higher education — and the opportunities it provides — did not seek or provide specific support for first-gen students. That’s not true today.
“The fastest growing demographic in higher education has been first-gen students, and that will continue to be the case in the near future,” said Carolyn Livingston, vice president for student life and dean of students at Carleton College. Today, she says, there is “recognition that the needs of first-generation students and/or their parents are unique and require intentional planning.”
Minnesota private colleges — where overall 23 percent of students are the first in their families to earn degrees — are uniquely positioned to provide this support.
In general, a first-generation college student is someone whose parents have not earned a college degree. Without more family exposure, these students can be less prepared for financial aid, the ins and outs of a college academics and when and how to ask for help. First-gen students often don’t have a sense of what’s “normal” for college or — as they make their college choice — what’s possible financially and academically.
“We are mindful that not every student knows everything that a college has to offer,” said Timothy Gossen, senior director of admission, dean of summer programs, and assistant professor in admission and academic affairs at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.
Making college financially possible is part of the story at all private colleges. At Saint Mary’s, 100 percent of students receive financial aid, Gossen said. There are specific opportunities that can help out, such as Saint Mary’s Cardinal Promise, which covers tuition for lower-income, Pell-eligible students. And some students benefit from the First Generation Initiative; it’s a full ride that includes tuition, room and board and fees, Gossen says. But it’s much more than that. It includes layers of academic, financial and social support that specifically address the first-generation student experience.
Finding ways to offer meaningful support is a reoccurring theme at private colleges. At the College of Saint Benedict, for example, Advocates for Inclusive Mentoring provides peer-to-peer mentoring relationships for women first-gen students (as well as other historically underrepresented identities) in their first or second year. It’s an initiative originally started by women student-leaders at Saint Ben’s that is now fully funded by the college. Another example at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University is the Intercultural LEAD Program, which supports 25 historically underrepresented, high-achieving, first-generation college students. These students work closely with professors, staff and peers to pursue leadership opportunities.
“Though going to college offers new opportunities and is exciting, it can also be overwhelming, especially for first-gen students,” said Cory Piper, dean of admissions at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, where 25 percent of students identify as first-gen. Mentoring relationships help, and so does size. “A smaller, more cohesive campus can be appealing to a student and family when making a college decision.” Piper said. Plus, “a small private liberal arts school allows the student to experience a welcoming, supportive community.” Students excel, she said, “because our faculty and staff get to know them for who they are as individuals thus able to nurture their talent, encourage their curiosity and help them flourish.”
At Carleton relationship building is supported many ways, including with directory that students can use to find first-generation faculty and staff, a reception for first-generation students during new student week and a faculty and staff panel for students during the year. First-gen students at Carleton also find advising, mentoring and more through the federally funded TRIO program, which is headquartered in its own house on campus.
TRIO provides academic, personal and financial support to Carleton students, with offerings including textbook assistance, tutoring, retreats, workshops and cultural events.
“High-touch, high-impact practices and dedicated attention in a smaller setting — that is the support first-generation students need,” Livingston said. It’s working for students at Carleton. The college, where 14 percent of last year’s incoming class identified as first-generation, was recognized as a first-gen forward institution in 2020, one of only 77 colleges and universities in the United States.
The needs of first-gen students go beyond affordability. “Access without support services is not access,” says Gossen said.
Gossen, a 2001 graduate of Saint Mary’s, was a first-generation student himself. Twenty-five years ago, “Of my 55 classmates in high school, 15 went to a four-year college. The two who finished went to Minnesota private colleges,” he said.
He remembers exactly where he was standing on campus when his father, who had not attended college, asked him if it was the right college to attend. Gossen remembers, he said, that “the tour guide said hi by name to people walking by, faculty remembered me, a person introduced me to someone from my home area.” Today, Gossen walks by that same spot almost every day as he works to ensure real access for today’s students.
“I truly believe we can say our colleges go above and beyond,” Gossen said.