Putting First-Generation Students First

By Horwedel, Dina M. | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, April 17, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Putting First-Generation Students First

Horwedel, Dina M., Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Faced with a growing population of first-generation students, many colleges are undertaking unique initiatives to recruit and retain these students.

As the demographics of the United States change, it's only natural that enrollment in the nation's colleges and universities mirrors these shifts. One well-reported trend is the growing Hispanic population, which is resulting in a greater number of first-generation college students. Institutions of higher education across the country are creating and revamping programs to serve these students in efforts to increase their chances of obtaining a degree.

Dr. Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles, says a current freshmen survey indicates that a larger percentage of Hispanic freshmen are first-generation, compared to freshmen of other backgrounds. In addition, a higher percentage of Hispanic students entering college need tutoring or remedial work in subjects like English, reading and math.

"Over the last two decades we have seen tremendous growth among Latinos in higher education," Hurtado says, noting that her research looked at trends in access for four-year institutions from 1975-2006. "Fifty-eight percent are enrolled in twoyear colleges, and there is an increasing number in four-year colleges. Of concern is graduation. Forty-seven percent complete their [baccalaureate] degree in six years, and community college students take even longer to complete."

Majority Minority

California State University, Dominguez Hills, has a majority minority student population. American Indians, Asians, AfricanAmericans and Hispanics now make up approximately 80 percent of its student body. Of these students, many are first generation, meaning that their parents did not attend college.

"We had a real influx of first-generation freshmen in the past four to five years, with greater than 1,000 students in the past five years," says Dr. Margaret Blue, dean of undergraduate studies and chair of the Academic Policy Council at CSUDH, which is designated as a Hispanic-serving insitution. Blue says there's a difference in the academic preparedness of today's first-generation students compared to that of students 10 years ago.

"These students don't know what their learning style is, and many don't have study skills. Many are intelligent, yet unprepared for college because of their backgrounds," says Blue, citing overcrowded classrooms at underfunded urban high schools and other challenges. "As a result, we are seeing a difference in our student body."

Six years ago, CSUDH first taught a University 101 course that offered personal, social and intellectual development, to help primarily first-generation students become better students.

The course was expanded to become what is now the Toro Program for firstgeneration, first-year students, which ineludes a general education course such as biology, physics, English or Chicana/o studies, taught with students grouped in a cohort. Faculty develop linked assignments between the two courses. Students participate in activities together on campus as part of the program, and for the first time beginning last fall, students who successfully completed the course served in the University 101 class as liaisons between the faculty and students. Many of the studentmentors help organize and lead study groups.

Focusing on first-generation freshmen students seems to have paid off. According to a CSUDH study conducted from 20052007, Toro Program participants had higher retention rates - two more semesters beyond the first year - than those who did not participate.

"The odds [that] a student who took UNV 101 would be a continuing student in fall 2007 are 1.6 times that of a student who did not take UNV 101," the study stated. The study adds that this should be balanced against the fact that 40 percent of the UNV 101 cohort dropped out of the university after two years, concluding that the long-term retention benefit of the course dissipates over time, and that other student experiences influence student retention.

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