Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays. To read this newsletter as soon as it sends, sign up to receive it in your email inbox.
From: Goldie Blumenstyk
Subject: The Edge: The First-Gen 'Gap That Still Exists'
I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe.
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I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. We’re making some changes to The Edge. I’ll continue to report, write, and produce this newsletter, but some weeks, it will lead off with contributions from my colleagues. This week, you’ll hear from Maura Mahoney on the latest thinking about support for first-generation students.
A yearlong series on student success.
Despite colleges’ apparent focus on first-generation students, their success is still not as much of a priority as it could and should be. That was more or less the consensus last month of a group of experts and leading practitioners who recommended what more needs to happen to create supportive environments that help students reach their potential.
Higher ed should be “celebrating the accomplishments and the work that has taken place at our campuses” while “acknowledging the gap that still exists,” said Henoc Preciado, who oversees basic-needs initiatives for the California State University system. (A basic-needs ambassador training program there helps faculty and staff members, as well as peers, connect students with food and housing resources, plus recognize boundaries and understand any relevant cultural considerations.)
The discussion came in a Chronicle virtual forum, “The Lessons From Making First-Gen a Priority,” co-hosted by Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University and the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. His research on college’s hidden curriculum had prompted panelist Melissa (Missy) Foy, the founding executive director of the Georgetown Scholars Program at Georgetown University, to create a course to equip students with the skills and cultural capital to navigate the academic community (syllabus here).
Putting students on a path to succeed is what colleges are all about, right? To figure out what that means now, The Chronicle, with support from the Ascendium Education Group, has developed a yearlong program to explore common challenges and look at new approaches through a series of virtual forums, written reports, and an online resource center. Every month or so we’ll share highlights here in The Edge, like we’re doing now for the kickoff.
Here’s some more advice we heard.
Bake support into the curriculum.
The best-intentioned first-gen programs in the world won’t do much good unless students actually take advantage of them. A common problem: They don’t think they qualify, and they don’t want to take anything away from students who might need more help. “This is not the Oppression Olympics,” said Preciado. “We are not trying to decipher who is the neediest and therefore is worthy,” he said. “Our programs and services are available to all of our students.”
That’s especially true if students can’t help but encounter such resources. Colleges can destigmatize food and housing programs by encouraging faculty members to mention basic-needs programs in their classes or on the syllabus. “The more ingrained it becomes in the minds of our students, of our faculty, of our staff, the more normal it becomes, and the more willing our students are going to be in seeking the support they need.”
A first-year seminar course at Texas A&M University at San Antonio mentions the food pantry and other resources, as well as topics like office hours. “We know a lot of our students are first generation, and by taking that class, you’re getting a lot of that information early on,” said Myrna Garza, the coordinator of the university’s first-year experience program.
Center student voices and peer leaders.
Not only are students the experts on their own lives and what they need, said Foy, they can help others embrace who they are. Student leaders at Georgetown who have spoken about their first-gen background and experience have spurred “other students to realize that this is not something to be embarrassed about, that it’s a wonderful side of their identity.”
Peer leaders have made a big difference at Texas A&M, said Garza — and the university pays them. They set up info tables at events, for example, and co-teach first-year seminar sections. Every student in the seminars is required to meet with their peer leader at least once. With any luck, some of the bonds outlast those meetings.
Compensation for that time matters a lot, Garza said: “A lot of campuses use this as an, ‘Oh, it’s like a cool thing in your résumé,’ but no, we should be paying our student leaders.” Jack pointed to the Students as Learners and Teachers Program at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, in which students are paid to help faculty members create more inclusive, equitable approaches to teaching.
Sustained attention to these issues can change the campus climate.
The first-year seminar and other programs at Texas A&M University at San Antonio create allyship, Garza said. Feeling like you don’t belong is “something we all go through, no matter what our background,” she said — and a sense of community helps.
When students are less worried about how they’ll afford books or where they’ll get their next meal, said Foy, they are “freed up in such a way that they can be fully present in the classroom or in conversations with their roommates.”
Supporting first-gen students, said Preciado, is the work not only of faculty and staff members, but local K-12 educators, nonprofits, and agencies. “Our colleges and universities are not ivory towers,” he said. “We are agents of social good and social change.”
Here are some education-related stories from other outlets that recently caught my eye. Did I miss a good one? Let me know.
- Corporate involvement in postsecondary learning is growing, Northeastern University’s Sean Gallagher wrote in an essay in EdSurge. And the more employers experiment with digital options, modular offerings, and other forms of “microlearning,” he argued, the more colleges and other education providers are likely to feel the competition.
- “The very premise of UATX is preposterous,” Dame magazine’s cultural columnist, Andrea Grimes, wrote of the proposed new University of Austin. Not least, she says, that’s because it’s “predicated on a subset of highly successful and privileged people’s unseemly thirst to be cast as victims in a grand narrative of — hilariously enough — intellectual and economic oppression.”
- The gap between military and civilian credentials is keeping thousands of former military medics from landing jobs in health care. As NPR reported, only six states make it easy for medics to become emergency medical technicians, while 10 states make them start school all over again (including California, which has the most veterans in the country).
Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at email@example.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.