In August, the roughly 28,000 in-state students heading to a four-year Virginia college included students our church mentored for the past seven years. Because they were all the first in their family to attend college, getting them to this point was not easy. Nationwide, potential first-generation students are less likely to apply to, attend, or graduate from college.
Our students faced issues common to first-generation college students: many came from families that did not speak English. Most were low-income. All lacked “college knowledge.”
Today, they are enrolled at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech, James Madison University and the University of Mary Washington. As we have helped them through this college transition, we’ve learned some powerful lessons about how Virginia can do a better job for first-generation students.
Most Virginia schools do not have a strong record of recruiting and admitting first-generation students. New data from Washington Monthly shows the University of Virginia at 16% and Virginia Tech at 17%. George Mason University (29%) and Virginia Commonwealth University (27%) do better, as do historically black colleges and universities like Norfolk State (38%) and Virginia Union (41%). The ACC average (17.8%) is much lower than the Big Ten (25.1%).
First-generation applicants face challenges, and few Virginia universities are equipped to address them. College visits are critical. It’s hard to imagine college life if you’ve never been there. (On a campus visit, one said, “I thought places like this existed only in the movies.”) Our program checked schedules, signed students up for the PSAT and steered them to upper-level courses. We were grateful to the James Madison admissions officer who sat down with our students and went course-by-course through each schedule.
Far too often, high school counselors could not provide the individual support our students needed. Their caseloads are heavy and counselors lack the time for one-on-one help. Virginia colleges are starting to provide college advisers in high schools, but the schools our students attended weren’t part of these programs.
First-generation students also need a peer group for support. Our program, called the Kids of Note (KON), was based on the notion that we could get students into college if we could keep them in band. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. There’s plenty of evidence that music boosts academic performance. And in suburban schools, band is both the largest class and the one that enrolls a disproportionate number of class leaders. Band was, in other words, filled with peers who would say, “I can’t go out. There’s a chemistry test tomorrow.”
Some Virginia universities are harnessing the power of peer groups to keep students in school. (Nationwide, about one-third of first-gen students drop out.) Mary Washington runs an on-campus five-week summer Student Transition Program that one of our KON students attended. James Madison’s Centennial Scholars program offers four-year support. Our KON students stay in touch through text messages and regular check-ins.
Finally, first-generation students need special help in applying for financial aid. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is complicated, requiring tax returns, bank statements and other financial information. But the FAFSA is the key to qualifying for virtually all financial aid. Seniors who complete the FAFSA are 63 percent more likely to enroll in college.
Low-income students are least likely to complete a FAFSA. Some states require the FAFSA for high school graduation. They’ve hired student ambassadors to boost completion rates. They offered family seminars (with translators).
Although some states see completion rates as high as 78%, Virginia’s FAFSA rate is roughly 20 points lower, at 56.9%. A statewide focus on FAFSA completion would be an easy policy win.
The college application process is increasingly complex. There’s an entire industry devoted to helping students from affluent families. (For every Lori Loughlin there are dozens of anxious parents hiring admissions advisers.) So communities need to help.
The privately supported Scholarship Fund of Alexandria places counselors on-site at T.C. Williams High School. Churches can help. KON was sponsored by Christ Church in Alexandria. Alfred Street Baptist in Alexandria also has strong college support programs.
Applying for college shouldn’t be so complicated that first-generation students are shut out. Virginia should step up to give all kids a fair shot.