People often talk about accessibility for first generation students; how important do you think support is for all students?

Receiving support from parents, other relatives, friends, and school representatives such as teachers, counselors, coaches, and high-level administrators are all critical in the ultimate success of students as they begin to enter the initial stages of considering college, complete applications, and ultimately transition to college. The difference between the quality of support a first generation student with a desire to attend college will receive, and those that are not first generation, is vital in comprehending the issue of college access.

First generation students could have supporting parents, but if neither successfully navigated the college process resulting in college completion, there is no “first-hand” knowledge of the obstacles associated with attending college, and more importantly, how to create a path around said obstacles. Parents of first generation students can educate themselves about the journey associated with graduating from college, but there is no substitute for personally completing the process themselves; a luxury that those with college educated parents enjoy.

What forms of support do you think are most often missing?

Even for an adult attempting to conquer a new endeavor, such as training to run a marathon or deciding to pursue a higher level of education as a 'non-traditional student', having a wide-ranging and engaged support system is imperative.

Successfully navigating the college application process is not easy for any student, as the commitment of time, components and length of college applications can vary. However, for first generation and/or low income students, application fees can provide financial barriers. Additional hurdles, such as having access to a computer and/or the internet at home, can derail the momentum necessary to complete the process. Therefore, varying forms of support from multiple people in the support system, at any given time, is truly needed to overcome said obstacles, from a parent sacrificing financially to purchase the internet at home, to a counselor providing an application fee waiver.

What does good support look like to you?

From a parent or guardian?

Parents and guardians should verbally express the importance of attending college early in the academic career of their student, financially set aside resources to assist in the process of attending college (including standardized testing and application fees), and allot time to pinpoint academic programs that complement in-school education (the earlier the better!).

From a mentor?

Mentors should provide realistic advice, yet still encourage their mentee to push the limits of their academic potential. Additionally, mentors can identify educational resources to prepare students for college and introduce mentees to their professional network of peers, providing an environment of successful individuals around their mentee.

From a community?

Every community member, regardless of the level of their educational attainment, income, race or religion, should be verbally encouraging to students. The future of the community depends on the success of the next generation of students.

From a school?

School representatives must first successfully complete the defined roles of their position with intentionality, but should look for opportunities to congratulate students for their accomplishments, no matter how small. In addition, school representatives should also identify external resources to assist students, which can result in making their jobs easier and giving students more support.

How can the overall community attitude towards education affect a student's college aspirations?

Psychologically, a community with a history of high school students bypassing college can harm the next generation of potential college attendees. Therefore, in communities with said history, high schools, churches, community centers, and more must encourage their high school students to attend college by communicating resources available to aid students in towards attending college, and creating policies and events that encourage college attendance (i.e. inviting local admissions representatives to attend a session after church). Of similar importance, members of the community must verbally express to youth the benefits of attending college, and that they believe their youth can not only enroll in college, but graduate.

For students who don't have the traditional parent/guardian role or figure in their life where can they turn?

Students must be proactive in approaching members of the community that can assist them in attending college. Examples reach far beyond dedicated school counselors and inspiring teachers, and include members of their extended family and family friends that have graduated from college, community members that work in fields where possessing a college degree in required, and specialized programs that help students identify college options, complete applications and enroll in college (i.e. TRiO programs).

How would you encourage students to ask for help who may be afraid to?

Very simply, students should approach teachers, counselors and other identified resources alone. Some students might not want to broadcast to the world that they are strongly considering college, due to peer pressure or even unsupportive family members. Speaking with a teacher between class, visiting a counselor during lunch or after school, or even disclosing to a coach or after school club advisor are viable methods more private students can utilize to get help without feeling embarrassed or afraid. In addition, students should also conduct research on which postsecondary institutions are appropriate for them, as often the possession of knowledge can validate the desire of attending college.

What is the role of a high school when providing support to students who may be struggling?

Many high school counselors, teachers, and other administrators are inundated with multiple issues that can detract them from giving every student the necessary 'face time' to assist with college applications. To ease the burden, high school personnel must make it a priority to locate external resources that can assist students with activities required to attend college, such as standardized test prep, test registration, and the completion of college applications. High schools should utilize demographic data to identify underrepresented students and host special sessions dedicated exclusively for this group of students.

What are ways we can bridge the knowledge gap between students in the college application process and their parents, who are not as familiar with the process?

School districts must be intentional in allocating financial resources and time towards addressing the parents and students unfamiliar with the college application process. While mandating sessions that provide information related to the application process can be tricky, combining the sessions with school registration, parent teacher conferences, and even participation in extracurricular activities is not as difficult. Furthermore, a quick scan of the educational landscape in their community can also aid efforts. Specialized programs with missions of assisting students through the process and community colleges that enroll many underrepresented student populations are almost always willing help, as it can aids their 'bottom line'.

How would you recommend a student approach the subject of college if their family has not historically had experience with a college education?

Virtually all parents want their students to become successful and guide the next generation of their family to unprecedented success educationally and ultimately economically. Nevertheless, parents also fear the inability to provide adequate resources to contribute towards the effort, and of possessing the knowledge to support their students through the college application process and into college.

In a first generation and/or low income household, students must express their desire to attend college as early as possible, giving the parent time to conduct research on the process and financially prepare to aid with expenses. Even if a student anticipates receiving the majority or all tuition via financial aid or scholarships, there are supplementary costs such as traveling to and from college, the necessity of 'spending money', and more. The student needs to research viable college options, understand the financial facets of attendance, and be willing to work hard academically, possibly obtaining several forms of scholarship funding (institutional and private).

How can students who have always had the expectation of going to college be advocates for those who haven't?

A current college student or recent college graduate that did not initially anticipate college in their future can play a major role removing doubts from current high school students. Parents, adult relatives, and school representatives might all give encouragement to a student, but the student might not envision a realistic vision of attending college from said encouragement. However, I have personally witnessed current college students returning to their high school and describing their positive and negative collegiate experiences, how to navigate past problems, and most importantly, conveying that attending college is not only attainable, but that succeeding is possible.

What is one thing you would like to see all high schools adopt to help students who don't come from a traditional background apply and transition to college?

Expecting the rate of underrepresented college attendance to rise without mandating measures to rectify the issue in not only unbecoming of an educator, it is leaning towards unethical. High schools have free and reduced lunch information, data on which students hail from traditionally underrepresented populations, and more just few mouse clicks or file cabinets away. High schools, especially those with marginal budgets and large populations of underrepresented students, must incorporate a college planning class into their curriculum. The class might be somewhat shorter than a traditional class period, it might replace a “homeroom” section, or possibly extend the school day, but it is an essential piece for school districts that want to increase the number of underrepresented students matriculating to college.

In your opinion, how can colleges and universities improve their systems to help first generation, or under-supported students, have an easier transition?

Bridge programs, whether optional or mandatory to gain college admittance, usually offer early academic remediation to not only prepare students for the rigors of college, but also to close the academic gap between them and their more affluent, and frequently more academically prepared peers. While these programs can be beneficial, colleges and universities must rely on their own institutional data to identify incoming students with similar data points to those past students that have left the institution before graduating. If an institution has a relatively accurate idea of why past students did not matriculate and ultimately finish, customized measures can create a 'support package' of actions to prevent the same fate for the incoming freshman.

How do students become connected with your nonprofit or other nonprofits like yours?

Pre-college TRiO programs such as Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound serve first generation and low income students in grades six through 12. With more than 1,200 programs in the nation combined, hosted by institutions of higher education and nonprofit entities, parents and students must conduct research to locate a program in close proximity to their home. Application processes can vary in length, but the time to complete the application pales in comparison to the benefits a student will receive.

Ethan Zagore

Director of TRiO Programs at the University of Notre Dame

Ethan Zagore serves as the Director of TRiO Programs at the University of Notre Dame, providing oversight for two U.S. Department of Education sponsored programs, Educational Talent Search (899 students) and Upward Bound (104 students), both aimed at assisting preparing underrepresented students for college academically, socially and culturally. Prior to his current position, he served at LeMoyne-Owen College (HBCU) in Memphis, Tennessee, as the inaugural Director of the Student Achievement Center. Originally from the West Garfield Park community of Chicago and a product of Providence-St. Mel High School, Ethan was awarded a Congressional Award honoring Outstanding Educational Administrators by Congressmen Danny K. Davis (IL) in August 2017. Educationally, he has obtained a B.B.A in Marketing from Howard University and an M.A. in Inner City Studies Education from Northeastern Illinois University. Ethan is currently pursuing his doctorate in Urban Higher Education at Jackson State University (dissertation stage).