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How to Provide Guidance to First Generation College-Bound Students

Danielle Moss Lee

Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA of the City of New York
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Middle-class families don't always realize it, but we feed our kids a steady diet of college-bound messages from the time of their infancy. At least that's been the case for my husband and me. Our daughter had her first college t-shirts before she reached six months old. The word shirt is plural because my husband and I went to different colleges, and each of us hoped to pass on some subliminal message about the superiority of our respective institutions.

It was all in good fun, of course, but the more I've worked in the college-access space, the more conscious I have become that I'd given our daughter a clear advantage just by the fact that, from birth, she was exposed to our expectations of college as something inevitable. In my family, no one ever asked me if I wanted to go to college. One of the earliest jobs I remember my mother having was as a research librarian at a university. Occasionally, she took me to work, and I remember hiding among the stacks and playing in the leaves on campus. The question of whether I would go to college was never on the table. The question was always, "What college would you like to go to?"

Most first generation college students don't have the advantage of spending endless hours on a college campus at key developmental points in their lives. But many parents of first generation college students understand the life-changing opportunity that higher education represents. Education is certainly the surest and most realistic ticket into the middle class. At Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), our primary goal is to make sure that all of our young people are asking themselves and their families what colleges they will attend, not whether they should go to college at all. Here's my Power List for helping all first generation college-bound students to get in the game and win.

1) Early and Frequent College Exposure

Until your students have had a sustained college-bound experience, it can seem like an expensive pipe dream. Expose them to colleges early and often. When I was a classroom teacher, I joined the mailing list for a performance space at a local college. They offered lots of school programs, and it wasn't uncommon for me to pack up my homeroom crew for a performance and then to have the kids eat their brown bag lunches on the campus lawn. These moments provided lots of opportunity for great conversations about my own college journey and what my students would need to prepare themselves for college. Did it work? A few years ago I got a random message on my answering machine from one of those same students who'd sat on the college lawn with me. "Ms. Moss, I know we haven't spoken in years, but I found your number because today I received my master's degree and I just wanted you to know what a profound effect you had on me." Talk about rewarding! At HEAF, we contact student groups at various local colleges and ask college students to spend time showing our middle schoolers their campuses and talking about their college experiences. Starting college exposure early really helps to demystify the experience for first generation students.

2) What Do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

In my experience, many first generation college-bound students obsess about their future careers and can sometimes be extremely narrow in their college searches because they can't get away from the link between college and future earnings potential. I can't say this is a bad idea necessarily, but I certainly didn't know what my career path was going to be at 16 or 17 years old. I think it's important for my students to know that also, and to remember that sometimes the best question is, "Who do you want to be when you grow up," because if you can think, write and communicate effectively you can almost always figure out the rest later.

3) College Match, Match, Match!

A few years ago, a young lady I know made the decision to limit her college search to schools that offered a journalism major, though she was great at many things and had a broad number of interests. Within her first semester she made two discoveries. First, she hated journalism. And second, she wanted a campus with an increased sense of political consciousness. We helped her transfer. The advice here is that, while a certain school may seem like an academic match, it might not provide young people with the social, political or cultural experiences that can be the deciding factors on their persistence over the four to six years it may take to earn a degree. One of the reasons I chose Swarthmore College as my undergraduate institution was its rich Quaker history of liberal social activism. While the college is certainly a place that honors political diversity, if I'd been a neo-conservative I don't think I'd have enjoyed my time on campus as much. Help your students ask the right questions about campus life, class size, course selection and dorm life. Most kids don't leave college for academic reasons; they leave because they are unhappy. Getting the match right can make all the difference.

4) Money and Status

The biggest barriers many of my students have faced during the college guidance process have been money and understanding of how financial aid works, and surprises around immigration status and how this can impact financial aid for college. Broaching the subjects in the fall of senior year won't allow families the lead time required to get their financial houses in order. In this economy, full scholarships are few and far between, and most families, even low income and working class families, will be expected to make some kind of financial contribution to their children's education. Encourage families to explore scholarships, to begin an early review of financial aid guidelines for the schools in which they're interested, and to disclose their immigration status so that you can help them develop a plan of action as soon on as possible. It is possible to go to college regardless of your financial and immigration status, but planning ahead definitely makes the difference.

5) Sharing stories

Another great way to prepare first generation college-bound students and their families for the college experience is to have them speak with other families who've had similar experiences. One of the communities we serve at HEAF has a cultural tradition that doesn't always celebrate the idea of girls leaving the home or neighborhood for college. I was afraid that some of my students would miss out on tremendous opportunities as a result, but I didn't want to position myself as the outsider who knew best. I decided to invite families from the same cultural background who'd had similar misgivings about sending their children away to come back and speak to parents from their community about how positive the experience can be for students and their families. Those families had a great deal more cultural understanding than I did. And the fact that I respected the current families enough to know my own limitations gave me more credibility.

For more information to share with your first generation college-bound students, refer them to sites like and others. There are great resources available to families, and it's our job as educators to arm them with the information they need. Does it matter in the long run? When the youngest of three brothers at HEAF graduated from a prominent New York City university, their father -- a building janitor -- marveled at the what the future of his family was going to be like with two of his boys now holding ivy-league degrees and one with a degree from an institution that was just as highly regarded. The impact of higher education on achievement, aspirations and socio-economic status can be generational. It's up to us to see the potential in our students and help them get the ball rolling.

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

John at TestSoup's picture

...but I wonder how long it will hold true.

College is changing. Education is changing.

I honestly wonder what it will be like when my stepson (now 4.5 years old) is in his junior year of high school. Will college be the best way forward? Or just one of the ways?

RMc's picture
Parent of 1 drop-out, 1 grad with 2 degrees, and 1 current college attendee

I don't know how to begin. I arrived at this site as a result of a general search for information on "Alliance for Generational Equity"
Upon reading the "How to Provide Guidance to First Generation College-Bound Students"
By DANIELLE MOSS LEE, I thought "hmmm verbose, but interesting." I started to click away and move on to other subjects when I saw the column of blog participants to the right margin of the page and realized that interestingly there were no faces of color.
While the article revealed a somewhat elitist opinion about education, I wrote that off to my own prejudices and continued my search for an explanation for this phenomenon. Since I had a stroke about a year ago, maybe I'm just not thinking clearly........... or is there another explanation?

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Senior Editor at Large

Dear RMc -

We are in the process of overhauling our blogger line-up. Look for more faces of color soon! You're right, and we're fixing that.


Joshua Scott's picture

Hopefully when your stepson is that age, he won't be beholden to a time-based education system, and will already have at least the equivalent of an associate degree, without the need for two more years of day incarceration.

Jill Vargas's picture
Jill Vargas
Secondary Spanish and ELL teacher from a rural area in Virginia

I have had the honor to teach in the Upward Bound Program at our local community college. For anyone not sure what Upward Bound is, it is a college prep program for low-income students. The majority are African American and one of the requirements into the program is to be a first generation college student. Over the course of the years I have seen students of color obtain a wide varitey of college degrees because of this program. Students begin in the 9th grade and are encourgaged up to college. Several return from college to serve as tutor mentors. Unfortuately,our local Upward Bound program lost their funding. Our students (coming in from 5 different counties) are now on their own to apply to college and even receive the help they need. We plan to continue to spirt of Upward Bound in our high school but end of Upward Bound was a hard blow to our community.

Beth Decker's picture
Beth Decker
Foundations teacher- A course for successful transition into adulthood

I realized these things you mentioned as a parent as well as a high school teacher and I am a college grad. I quickly understood that my experiences didn't mean my own children would desire what I had. I created an entire class around helping ALL students find their 'mojo' for the future. If we do a better job of that, they will go find their pathways much more easily than they do now. The message we are currently sending is that if you don't go to college you won't be successful. Or if you go you will be 'rich'. Most kids (even children of college grads) know almost nothing real about what it is, what it takes and why they should go or not. We must do more concrete things to help them find their course of action first THEN if college is a bridge to get there...THEY will find ways to cross it.

Kathy's picture

While I agree completely with you on many of the topics, I feel as though the section of affording college was quickly reviewed. One of the major points that eliminates many from entering college is that of money. There are many talented students (regardless of race, etc) that simply can not afford to go and yes while students and parents need to not think about this in their senior year, this idea should start at the Middle School level or earlier. I have children that are going into Kindergarten in the fall. We were handed a brochure on our state's higher education trust plan for the orientation to Kindergarten. I believe that all parents should get this information as soon as possible to start thinking. Now, I do realize that many parents would look at this and think, "nah, I have time" but that is another obstacle that needs to be overcome as well.

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