Opinion: Five Ways to Keep Struggling Students in College

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Access to college for low income and first generation students is a hot topic these days. The White House recently launched a new initiative called Reach Higher. The College Board revised the SAT. The Supreme Court Michigan decision prompted national debate about admissions policies.

However, getting in to college is just one part of the equation; staying is another. Only 10 percent of low-income students in college actually graduate.  

Recently, The Opportunity Network brought admissions officers from 17 competitive colleges (including Bowdoin College) together to discuss the challenge. There are good efforts underway. Building on these, we identified five ways to improve the odds for low-income and first-generation college students.

  1. Use data to inform decision making: Big data can be a critical tool for student success. It is now possible to use detailed graduation data, broken out by incoming test scores and GPAs, and transfer status to help potential applicants understand which colleges offer them the best chance to thrive. Colleges can also use data to identify students who bring factors that correlate to dropout so that they can target these students for early intervention and support.
  2. Make sure high school students have trusted advisors: For first-generation students, having someone help them navigate the complex college admissions process is particularly important. Their parents don’t have experience to guide them and their school guidance counselors often don’t have time for individualized counseling. In a phenomenon called ‘undermatching’ many low income students wind up applying to schools beneath their abilities. Ironically, that makes them less likely to succeed in college, according to a White House report on Increasing College Opportunity for Low Income Students. 
  3. Engage families in the process: For many families, allowing a child to move away from home to a residential college is a monumental decision. For some immigrants, sending a child, especially a daughter, away to college flies in the face of deep cultural traditions. Local nonprofits can host parent orientation sessions and financial aid nights and can counsel families individually to address specific concerns about housing, travel and expenses. Parents with students already in college can also become ambassadors to share their experiences with other parents.
  4. Prepare students to take advantage of resources on campus: Many students arrive on campus inadequately prepared for the academic challenges that await them. Up to one in three first year students don’t return for a second year, according to US News and World Report. First generation and disadvantaged students are most likely to be caught off guard. During the freshman orientation whirlwind, it’s easy to miss information about the writing center, tutoring services and faculty office hours. Local nonprofits can teach them to recognize when they need help, find the right services and advocate for themselves on campus. 
  5. Provide mentors with similar backgrounds: For first generation and low income students the transition to college is a lonely process. Their peers from wealthy public and private high schools seem better prepared. They can’t afford to join friends for dinners out and day trips. On-campus mentoring programs cost little to start and offer enormous benefits. Older students have credibility with younger students and a deep and personal understanding of the issues these students face.