Spotlight: Aligning Advising to Improve Postsecondary Access and Success for First-Generation College Students

Friday, November 12, 2021
Jhenai Chandler
Associate Director

At ESG, we believe aligned advising is essential for opening the doors to postsecondary and career success. Students who receive high-quality advising gain a multitude of academic, navigational, and relational benefits. Unfortunately, not all students have equitable access to advising that addresses students’ holistic needs and fosters a seamless and successful transition from high school to college. This especially holds true for us first-generation college students, who could not always turn to our parents for guidance on completing admissions and financial aid applications, or navigating the complexities of higher education and career cultures. I relied on my family for valuable support in other areas, and could have benefited from proactive advising that provided guidance about the relational and procedural aspects of preparing for college life.

First-generation students and their families should not have to figure things out alone. Providing access to advising support that clarifies the path from high school, to and through college and career is a matter of educational and economic equity. The National Center for Education Statistics found 56% of undergraduates nationally were first-generation college students, meaning neither parent had a bachelor’s degree. For these students there is a nearly $50,000 parental income gap compared to continuing generation students. Furthermore, first-generation students are more likely to leave higher education without a postsecondary credential, which is concerning in a time when educational attainment is essential to obtaining careers with family-sustaining wages and long-term economic mobility. This solidifies the need for an investment in high-quality advising supports that are proactive and address the holistic needs of first-generation students. 

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Inika Williams, Director of Pre-Collegiate Programs for the Center of Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE) at Florida State University, to learn more about how CARE is providing holistic and proactive advising supports to future first-generation college students. 

Can you provide some context about the pre-collegiate component of the program? 

CARE has been around since the early seventies and was originally started as a summer bridge program to prepare low-income and underrepresented racial/ethnic minority students for success at Florida State University. The program has since expanded its programming and CARE’s vision is to recruit, prepare, and support targeted first generation college students for successful adaptation and academic success at the undergraduate level. For the last 5 years, 100% of our pre-collegiate students have graduated high school, and we’ve maintained a 92-98% college graduation rate for first-generation students. 

We now provide high touch pre-collegiate advising and programming to first-generation students in middle and high school with local, state and federal grants that position us to operate both the College Reach-Out Program (CROP) and Upward Bound. Our staff, counselors and student mentors meet with students 3-4 times per week. It is important for us to meet with students often because they have a variety of needs that we can proactively address and support with our resources or by leveraging services available on campus. 

We also use community resources because we can’t do it all alone. We are not specialists in all areas and it takes an array of tools and resources to meet the full needs of our students. 

At ESG, we are exploring more about advising supports that address the holistic needs of students. Can you speak to the needs of your students and how you are addressing them with services in the pre-collegiate programs? 

Over three quarters of our students are first-generation, but all of our students and families live at or below the poverty line and they receive free and reduced lunch through their schools. CROP allows us to work with students as early as 5th grade and we immediately begin preparation for admissions to selective institutions and life skills needed to navigate college and career. 

CARE activities that provide campus life experiences are the most salient programs that resonate with students and families. Our pre-collegiate students attend a number of academic enrichment programs on our university campus, which helps create a sense of belonging and reduces the feeling of being intimidated by college life. We’ve created a safe environment where students feel they belong and easily ask for support from a network of staff and peers. In addition to the full-time staff, we hire first-generation college students with similar backgrounds to mentor our high school students, and they have that same mentor until they graduate high school.  Students seek advice from their college mentors to make academic, career, and social decisions. We find this to be an effective strategy, in addition to professional academic and career advising, because students can see themselves in their college mentor. That representation of successful students from similar backgrounds and circumstances helps students open up about their needs. Many of our parents have expressed appreciation for having an ‘extended family’ they can trust to help students make right decisions about their education. 

There are additional social experiences and education that we often take for granted that are unfamiliar to our students that we also incorporate into our work. We partnered with campus recreation to provide students with field trips to the FSU Reservation where students received sailing lessons and experienced canoeing- a first for all of our students. It’s those types of experiences that are also important to student success.  Additionally, one of the rural communities that we serve has a very high teen pregnancy rate. We know this can be a barrier to student success and what we found is that not all students had access to quality preventative health education. These are tough topics that we are not experts in, but we know they are vital to our students’ success. We partnered with a local health center to provide proper health education to our students, and our students from that particular county have a 0% pregnancy rate.

How do you help students prepare for careers in today’s workforce? 

As I mentioned, most of our students are first-generation and low-income, and it is important that we help prepare them for high-wage professions. We partner with the university’s career center to hold several “how-to” workshops on preparing for interviews, developing resumes, and establishing professional networks. When students enter our program in 5th grade, we have career exploration activities to expand students’ knowledge about current careers and the degree programs needed to secure those opportunities. This conversation is necessary to ensure students are taking advantage of relevant career development opportunities and taking the proper courses for those degree programs. 

How does the current social climate as it relates to racial equity influence or impact your work?

With 98% of our students identifying as Black or African-American, we always apply a social justice approach to this work because there are barriers that students face, and we have to dismantle those if we want more students of color achieving postsecondary success. We don’t adhere to traditional higher education practices that don’t typically meet the needs of students of color, first-generation or low-income students. We work based on the circumstances of our students and families so they have equitable access to programming and support. For instance, many of our parents work and are paid hourly so we host late parent meetings and hold them within their communities. Parent involvement is important to student success and we want to ensure all parents have opportunities to engage with their students’ educational journey. 

What advice would you give to a community or state that is interested in adopting or scaling services for first-generation students?

It’s first important to push back on this belief that college is not for everyone. This mindset can disproportionately impact higher education access and success for  students of color, low-income students and first-generation students. The starting point is to shift mindsets to believe that all students have a place in college. Those of us who do this work, believe in the students and incorporate culturally relevant practices and programs to create a sense of belonging, and address social barriers that often create challenges to their college success. 

The pre-college program at FSU CARE provides first-generation college students early access to holistic advising that address their academic, personal and career development. All students should have access to similar advising support services. ESG provides states and communities insight on ways to take action and scale similar supports.