I think I was the only kid in my grammar school class whose dad had gone to college. Of course, in the 1950s in working class Kearny, N.J., that wasn’t a big surprise. As our family folk lore goes, dad was a scholarship kid at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark and his family was so poor he had to walk back and forth from his home in East Newark to school because, in the depths of the Great Depression, there was no money for bus fare. So, in those days before the FAFSA and complicated federal funding of college access, dad’s education would have ended at high school, but luck intervened. My grandmother won the Irish Sweepstakes! Way to go, Grandma. Dad went to college.
That’s the kind of miracle it took in 1937 to get my dad through college. But, because he had gone, I always had the expectation growing up that I, too, would go to college. And with that expectation comes a big bonus. Students whose parents went to college have a better chance of graduating from college themselves. So, here I am 77 years after my dad completed his college degree with the happy job of analyzing our graduation rates and doing my best to help our students stay in college and finish up on time.
Our data shows that our first-generation college students (the ones whose parents never went) graduate at lower rates than the rest of our students. And Seton Hall is not alone. Dismal national statistics indicate that only 11 percent of first-gen students earn a degree within six years and more than 25 percent leave after their first year. Our figures are much better than the national averages, but we still have a way to go.
That’s why we’ve been paying extra attention to our first-gen students this year and backing up that attention with initiatives designed to help the students thrive and graduate. The reasons that first-gen graduation rates lag are varied. For many first-gen students, college is a mystery that they can’t turn to their parents for a solution. The students who are first have no point of reference as to what college is all about. The vocabulary of college, for example. What is a bursar or a provost? What does it mean to complete the Core Curriculum? Teaching students the lingo is the easy part, helping them solve other challenges, like family obligations, financial difficulties and a reticence to ask for help, is harder. Sometimes, to a first-gen student, it just seems easier to stop and get a job.
Last August, we ran a special program for first-gen students who were in commuting distance to campus. The 10-day program tackled some of the known obstacles. First of all, we invited the families of our 24 students to campus for a barbeque. Everyone came! We had siblings, grandparents, moms and dads. President Mary Meehan, herself a first-gen college graduate, welcomed the group. Freshman Studies explained the fall semester in detail and we went from family to family answering questions and breaking the ice.
For the next nine days, the students were exposed to the ins and outs of college life. Most importantly, they were taught how to ask for help, whom to ask and where to go when the going got rough. We’re trying to teach students to stand on their own for the first time.
In addition, the students were given a support team that included a Freshman Studies mentor, a Peer Adviser (both of them first-gen) and an academic coach.
An academic coach is exactly what it sounds like. Just as a sports coach teaches and advises from the sidelines, the academic coach helps a student make sound decisions about college life. I often ask parents to act as an academic coach – to provide the help and support and guidance that nudges students to good decision making.
The students who participated in our pilot are doing so well that we’ll be bringing the program back for next year’s freshman class. For our returning students, we welcome all our first-generation students to participate in our workshops and to take advantage of our offer of an academic coach. If you have a student who wants to benefit from these resources, coach them: tell them to shoot me an email at Tracy.Gottlieb@shu.edu. I’m always excited to help our students connect to the best path to graduation.