Five Things Families of First-Generation College Students Need to Know

College access and success programs have mainly focused on supporting first-generation students but families must also focus on how to appropriately support their students. Family support (apart from money) is as critical as any campus-based intervention designed to retain and sustain students. The following are five things families of first-generation students should consider before and after lugging that last footlocker into a dormitory and kissing goodbye.
08/10/2015 02:06 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2016

Over the next few weeks more than three million first-year students will show up to well-manicured campuses all across the nation to begin their first semester as college students. It is a special time filled with excitement and random worries about the unknown for students and the families sending them off. Many of these students will be the first in their family to attend college. The success of these students is critically important to achieving President Obama's goal of America having the highest proportion of citizens in the world with a post-secondary degree or credential. Numerically, this goal is impossible without significantly improving the percentage of low-income and first-generation students who not only enroll in college, but also persist long enough to earn a degree.

Many college students rely on family support. Parents who attended college often enjoy greater financial resources to support their students and they pass along important social and cultural capital about being a successful college student. The likelihood that their children have been exposed to college campuses prior to arriving is much greater. In a recent conversation with a college president, she expressed dismay at the fact that too many parents of first-generation students still send their children off to college "site unseen" as a matter of circumstance. College access and success programs have mainly focused on supporting first-generation students but families must also focus on how to appropriately support their students. Family support (apart from money) is as critical as any campus-based intervention designed to retain and sustain students. The following are five things families of first-generation students should consider before and after lugging that last footlocker into a dormitory and kissing goodbye:

1. Remind them that they belong
Many first-generation students and students from low-income families struggle with imposter syndrome--the inability to internalize their success, or seeing themselves as undeserving of the opportunity given their background. A critically important sense of belonging can also be threatened on college campuses where students find it difficult to relate socially or culturally. Many first-generation students will falsely question whether they belong on a college campus. Go out of your way to remind your student that they are good enough, remind them that they deserve to be in college as much as anyone else, remind them that making adjustments to college is normal and that they will grow more comfortable over time. Your job is to convince them, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are worthy of being a college student and that the world awaits their genius.

2. Eliminate unnecessary distractions
The academic and social transitioning to college represent unique challenges for all students. It is important for families to help students focus on what matters most. Equally important is eliminating, or at least minimizing, unnecessary distractions. Some families for example, as an incentive or reward, will consider sending their student off to college with a car before determining whether they actually need one. Parking, maintenance, repairs, or being constantly hit-up for transportation favors of every variety can present a significant distraction, especially in the first year of college. In other instances families can inadvertently burden students with what is happening back home. Staying connected is good; unnecessary worry about circumstances they cannot fix is not. Learning to become a good college student is difficult enough without unnecessary distractions.

3. Plan beyond the first-year
If we agree that one main goal of going to college is to actually graduate, then the celebratory sendoff must be tempered by longer-term planning. One common mistake is underestimating the actual cost of attendance, expenses beyond tuition and fees. Another common mistake is failing to do "completion planning." This requires families to be thoughtful about what is required for their student to remain in college long enough to actually graduate. Far too many brilliant young people, who have learned to be good college students, do not return the second year because of short-sighted planning.

4. No lonely breaks
For many first-generation and low-income students who will leave home for college, the holiday and seasonal breaks throughout the academic year can be tough to manage. The expense of traveling home can be prohibitive. Yet, the idea of not being around loved-ones during the holidays can be emotionally heavy--especially for students away from home for the first time. Sending a care package with familiar favorites and an encouraging note can go a long way. Thinking about relatives or family friends closer in proximity as a destination during the breaks is also a good option. Students should not be solely responsible for figuring out what to do during academic breaks. Instead of scrambling, they should be able to comfortably and confidently look forward to a short recess like everyone else.

5. Make sure they are connected
For 30 years researchers have theorized that students who are socially and academically integrated into institutions are more likely to persist. Getting involved in campus-based activities outside the classroom is important for success. Help students identify support services on campus before they actually need them. The health center and counseling services, tutoring resources, computer support services, club sport programs, relevant student organizations or campus-based service opportunities are all important for getting students connected and supported. Asking questions about what they are doing outside the classroom is just as important as prying about grades.