Colleges should tap into first-generation students’ spirit of academic and civic engagement (opinion)

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A couple of years ago, Campus Labs produced a survey that showed that first-generation college students, many of whom are also low income, tended to be more engaged in their college experience than their peers. Those data, while presented as surprising, were not at all so to those of us who have spent our careers working in institutions that serve such students.

Without denying the huge challenges that first-generation students face, especially now, I know from working with many that there are clear reasons for their greater engagement, starting with the simple fact that the effort required to apply to and succeed in college is so much greater for them than for other students that they value the experience much more. (In the name of full disclosure, I’m also married to one of them, who has two college degrees and a passion for helping other first-generation students.) In addition, their personal experience on the wrong side of the economic, educational and often racial divide in this country informs their search for a better life for themselves and others. And the pandemic, ongoing protests over racial justice and other tears in our social fabric have brought that search into sharper relief than ever before.

I have found that the spirit of engagement in first-generation students also carries over to civic engagement. Many first-generation students come to college with strong ties to their local civic and faith communities, which translates into a strong involvement with not only their college but also their community. My evidence for this comes from more than two decades of service as a senior administrator in four heavily regional, first-generation-serving institutions — two public and two private — all with strong student community engagement programs. It is no accident that programs supporting low-income, first-generation students, such as the Bonner Program, include community engagement as a requirement for participation, with the goal of recruiting “a diverse pool of low-income, first-generation students who are committed to changing the world through service.”

We know that community engagement increases retention and overall student success, but I have observed that it is also an easy sell: first-generation students are often among the most eager participants in community engagement initiatives precisely because of their commitment to change the world, which matches their effort to change their own futures. I have seen such students establishing a health clinic in a local community, starting a farmers market, tutoring local elementary students and participating in programs that engage elders — the list goes on. Anyone who has worked at similar institutions has similar stories.

Four Questions

Many first-generation students want to change the world, or at least their own world, but they don’t always know how to connect that desire to their education in a practical way. As a college president, I would often ask prospective students four questions — originally developed at Emory & Henry College with the help of Elaine Kuttner from Cambridge Concord Associates — intended to distill students’ world-changing drive down to an educational plan. These questions have an even greater resonance now than they did before COVID-19, the economic downturn and ongoing racial protests. They are:

  1. What kind of world do you want to live in?
  2. What needs to change for that world to exist?
  3. What part of that change do you want to engage in?
  4. What do you need to learn to make that change happen? (I preface this one with, “Here is where we come in.”)

Generation Z students rightly complain that older generations abdicate responsibility when placing the burden of change on them. But the point of these questions is actually to encourage their passions and help them develop a vision for living in a world in which they will spend a longer time than their elders. Now, of course, the questions mean even more; there is nothing like global crises to inspire us to consider how we must change the world.

Question No. 2 should be easier to answer now; it has become obvious that we need broader access to health care, personal economic stability and broadband. We need better coordinated preparedness for crises. We need global cooperation to meet challenges, including more stable supply chains. We need to support our most vulnerable populations. We need better support for front-line workers in fields such as teaching, health care and other service industries. We need better leadership at the national level. Most important, we need a more racially and economically equitable society.

Those answers to what must change provide some concrete options for questions No. 3 and 4. Students will want to take on understanding and eliminating systemic racism in law enforcement and many other organizational structures. They will want to join the ranks of and improve support for the health workers, who are the heroes of our time. They will want to move the K-12 teaching profession away from the deadening effects of high-stakes testing toward the creative profession it should be. They will want to go into business, understanding the need for industry to see robust supply-chain management as both economically beneficial and an essential public good. They want to become and support engaged and ethical public leaders.

With this new clarity, more first-generation students may be attracted to professions in such areas — not just as personally enriching careers, but as ways to channel their drive to change the world. And of course, colleges need to retool their programs to match those new understandings. That should not be hard, given that faculty members at institutions that serve large numbers of first-generation students tend to be practitioners in those professions rather than research-oriented academics.

The Advantages of Local and Regional Colleges

Most first-generation, low-income students will attend, as they always have, the regional public universities, nonelite private colleges and community colleges that together educate the majority of American college students. Data from the 2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, available here, reveal that 49 percent of students at two-year institutions were first generation, as were 41 percent at “inclusive” four-year institutions, according to an analysis by Jeremy Houska, director of educational effectiveness at the University of La Verne. In comparison, 32 percent of students at selective institutions, and 22 percent of students at more selective institutions, were classified as first generation. (The percentage of first-generation students goes down as selectivity goes up, but the fact that over a fifth of students at more selective institutions are first generation demonstrates that first-gen students make up a significant proportion of all college students today.)

And if the prediction holds true, borne out in recent surveys, that more students will attend colleges closer to home as we emerge from the pandemic, then even more first-generation students, which also means even more students of color, will attend the regional public and private institutions that have long served these students. The practicality of a safe, affordable, supportive, community-engaged and nearby college education may begin to outweigh the prestige of a better-known but faraway and expensive option.

The good news is that the faculty and staff members who run these regional institutions have deep and broad experience in serving first-generation, low-income students who come to college with little personal and social capital but with lots of passion — and who graduate with transformed lives and a desire to change the world. It is no accident that many of these colleges have robust community engagement programs. Given our country’s economic and racial divides, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of those transformative student experiences in combating economic inequities and systemic racism.

Although elite colleges mount highly publicized efforts to recruit culturally diverse, first-generation students, for the most part they do what they have always done: they give students time and space to do what they were going to do anyway. But local and regional institutions, outside the media limelight, are in the business of changing lives. They have biology professors like Lauren Bergey at Centenary University, who can take a student who has been told that she is “not college material” and support and mentor her to acceptance into medical or veterinary school.

Or consider Olivia Bailey, a first-generation graduate of Emory & Henry College who was virtually homeless before college. She is now a civically active anchor on WCYB, a regional television station, thanks to her own drive and caring and rigorous communications professors. Another first-generation Emory & Henry graduate, Laken Brooks, is now pursuing a graduate degree in English with a focus on disability studies at the University of Florida and recently presented on CNN an op-ed on how face masks create communication barriers for the hearing-impaired, as well as an opinion piece in this publication.

One of the best statements of social mobility I have heard came from an African American student, Najee Evans, a graduate of Centenary University from inner-city Newark, N.J., who plans to work in student affairs. After receiving his master’s degree in social work, he posted on LinkedIn, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” As local and regional institutions, these colleges and universities also have close connections with the community from which most of their students come and to which many will return. Those local connections range from valuable internship and employment opportunities — local firms want to hire the students they know — to opportunities for meaningful community engagement during and after college.

Unfortunately, however, these institutions also share the dubious distinction of being the least-well-funded sectors of American higher education: tuition-driven regional private colleges are notoriously fragile financially, especially given the lost revenue due to COVID-19, though they often miss the danger signs. Regional public colleges share the sector’s decline in state support yet lack the alternative revenue streams that support flagship state universities. Many community colleges, the other major contributors to regional higher education, also suffer, and according to some reports were shortchanged by the CARES Act. The irony is that these institutions together not only educate the majority of American college students over all, but they also serve thousands of first-generation students who need the support and social mobility that higher education offers more than anyone and more than ever.

States and counties must recognize this situation by directly supporting both two- and four-year regional public colleges, even in tough budget times. Student aid, especially increasing the Pell Grant, also needs to remain on the federal agenda. As I argued back in 2015 during the previous debates over “free college,” direct aid to needy students is far more equitable than tuition-free plans that often end up subsidizing students who don’t require the money.

States can also help regional private colleges by supporting and increasing state financial aid in programs such as New Jersey’s Tuition Aid Grant and Virginia’s Tuition Assistance Grant, as well as through opportunities for capital funding. Regional private colleges often have small endowments, which usually translates into few internal resources for financial aid. State financial aid to needy students can free up scarce operational funds that must otherwise be spent on internal financial aid in order to make college affordable. And in both the public and private sectors, donors also need to become aware of the value of these regional institutions, where a donation that would be a drop in the bucket at a prestigious school can be transformational.

In sum, if we want to achieve true social mobility — which is perhaps the most important contribution that regional colleges now make toward combating the systemic economic and racial divisions in this country — we must ensure that students at these institutions can continue to change the world, as they always have.



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