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3 Ways K-12 teachers and counselors can support first-generation college students

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International students sitting together on green campus lawn - Group of high school teens studying outside college - Multiethnic millenial friends doing homework in university park

A few years ago, school counselor Kimberly Brown worked with a student who was offered a college athletic scholarship. "He had a tremendous opportunity in front of him that could change the trajectory of his life," she said. But the student was thinking of turning it down. When Brown spoke with the student's father, who hadn’t finished high school, he said he had friends who went to college and were doing worse than him. "He could not fathom why it was so important for [his son] to do this," she said.

Speaking at the American School Counselors Association national conference in July, Brown said that it’s not her place to make decisions for a student, but she did try to "flood him with information." She talked him through scenarios, such as:

  • If you go to this school, this might be the life you might have…
  • If you finish with this degree, this would be the starting salary…
  • If you stay here, what will you do?

After considering the example he wanted to set for his younger siblings, the student accepted the scholarship. But it wasn’t the first or last time Brown has helped students navigate family discouragement around college. And those aren’t the only hurdles for first-generation college students. Brown said educators can support these students by making it clear that higher education is an option, demystifying the admissions process and checking in with them between acceptance and departure.

Make college an option

Brown, a first-generation college graduate herself, works at Greenville County Schools in South Carolina. There, she organizes small groups for potential first-generation college-goers to plan their futures. In at least one meeting each year, she opens the floor for students to share the negative messages they’ve heard about college. With several manufacturing plants in the vicinity, a lot of students have been told they don’t need college. They also hear stories about relatives or friends who went for a semester or two and didn’t finish.

“We focus a lot on grades and test scores and the concrete stuff about college admissions. But students have to have a safe space to say out loud, ‘This is what I’m hearing. This is how it’s affecting me,’” Brown said. She said that educators should have compassion and not make assumptions about families, but also recognize how easily the discouraging narratives can outweigh a “Yes, you can” message about college. After listening, her strategy of flooding them with information begins. “They have to have ammunition to fight those things that they've been hearing for years.”


Teachers can help by sharing their own path to higher education. Whether they were first-generation students, enrolled directly after high school, got their degree after military service or went back to school after another career, it benefits students to hear those stories. “Some teachers are really good at that. They'll share their journey. They'll have things up in their room, their college memorabilia or things like that,” Brown said. These efforts can help students see that they are surrounded by adults who have been to college.

The basics aren’t basic

In her small groups for first-generation students, Brown breaks down each step of the college admissions process. That includes explaining the differences between two-year, four-year and technical schools, describing different majors and degrees, walking students through applications and FAFSA completion and explaining the different types of financial aid. Informally, teachers and other adults in schools can demystify the process by talking about their own experiences choosing and applying to colleges, she said. Educators shouldn’t assume that students understand the vocabulary and stages they’re mentioning (“FAFSA,” “common app,” “major,” etc.), but explain them as they would any unfamiliar subject.

“A lot of times these students don't have anybody to ask,” Brown said. “Have a plan for these kids. They need more, period. A lot of times it's us or nothing.”

What happens after the acceptance letter

When college acceptance letters start arriving in February, "Oh it's nothing but glitz and glam," Brown said. "But where is it by May? Gone." Educators need to be talking about what happens after the acceptance letter, too, she said. "OK, you got in. Now what?”

Somewhere between 10 and 40% of students who intend to enroll at college fail to do so, according to the Strategic Data Project at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research. This phenomenon is known as “summer melt,” and students from lower income levels are more susceptible to it. Much like all of the steps it takes to get into college, Brown said the unfamiliar terrain between college acceptance and campus move-in can be a barrier for first-generation students. “Sometimes they literally think they just show up,” she said. To help, educators can connect first-generation students to financial aid counselors to go over award packages, walk students through registering for classes and check in about orientation.

Sometimes it takes even more hands-on involvement. Brown, for example, took her student who received the athletic scholarship shopping during the summer so that he would know what to buy for his dorm room. She also said she was prepared to drive him to campus if needed, but his dad did that.

While getting students to campus might be the finish line for high school counselors and teachers, Brown said the work should start long before that. She encouraged middle school staff to identify and encourage potential first-generation college students, too. She said to “just stop and drop gems,” such as telling them about majors or organizations related to their interests. “The more you can get to them before they start building a transcript, you are helping us and you're helping them.”