How Funders Build "College Knowledge" for First-Generation College Students

You've heard of "helicopter parents," right? You know, those moms and dads who hover over their kids' lives, involving themselves in every decision? This kind of parenting often lasts through high school and even into college. Many first-generation college students, however, face the opposite problem: not enough parental support and involvement, rather than too much.

"College knowledge," or knowing how to access college and navigate the higher education experience, is as important a part of college readiness as having good grades and high scores on an admissions test. But many first-generation college students arrive on campus without the support—informational, emotional, and financial—that students with college-educated parents often receive. Skills such as how to participate in class, take notes, or talk to professors, which students from college-educated families may take for granted, are new to many first generation students.

Because of this college knowledge gap, many first generation students become overwhelmed with anxiety, raising the likelihood of dropping out. Time magazine reported that a quarter of low-income, first-generation college students leave school after the first year.

A growing number of colleges are working to bridge this college knowledge gap, developing programs to provide needed supports for first-generation students, and they are turning to higher education funders for support.

A recent example comes from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, a big supporter of higher education programs, especially for private liberal arts schools. Davis just awarded a $200,000 grant to Centre College in Kentucky to support initiatives aimed at first-generation college students. Centre plans to develop leadership training programs and other supports to help foster college success for the estimated 130 first-generation students at Centre.

Other funders have stepped forward as well, funding programs, scholarships, and other types of support for first-generation college students. The College Access Foundation of California focuses its grant-making on disadvantaged and first-generation students. The Helios Education Foundation has funded scholarships for first-generation students in Florida who plan to become school teachers. 

The Gates Foundation has been thinking about "college knowledge" for some time. In 2012, it funded a $2.5 million competitive grant initiative with several partners to develop Facebook apps that will help first-generation and low-income college students navigate the challenges of higher education. Last fall, developers rolled out 19 new apps as a result of the competition. 

One of the winners of Gates money was the Center for Student Opportunity (CSO), which launched an online community called I'm First to provide resources and backing to first-generation students. Over 170 colleges have joined the initiative. For example, Walsh University in Ohio, where 46 percent of students are first generation, just joined up with I'm First in July. CSO also publishes a guide to help first-generation students, as well as college administrators, parents, mentors, and others who want these young people to succeed. 

It's not clear what other funders are getting behind CSO's I'm First initiative, but our bet is that this effort will attract more money. As awareness grows that the barriers to college success go far beyond academic ability or financial capacity, and as more evidence rolls in that extra supports can make a huge difference in the lives of first-generation students without a parent to whom they can turn for help when they have a question about college life. (The parents may want to get involved, but do not know how to do so or what advice to offer.)

Institutions of higher education can enhance the experiences and improve retention of first-generation students with a range of programs. And they can turn to more funders out there who are willing to help.