Answers from Experts: Connecting with First Gens

Ben Castleman
November 11, 2013

Ben Castleman is an award-winning researcher on topics such as the impact of personalized outreach on first generation student success.

We asked Ben what his research and experience suggest about ways to engage first-generation students once they are in college. Here’s what he told us:

Students in general face complex postsecondary decisions and have to navigate a complicated array of information in order to evaluate and make choices about their options. These decisions usually do not prevent kids from college-educated families from pursuing and succeeding in college because they have parents (and increasingly professional consultants) to help guide them through the process.

But for students who are the first in their family to go to college, the complexity of these decisions can be very daunting, especially if they lack access to professional assistance.

Once students are in college they struggle with decisions and tasks like choosing which courses to take or which majors to pursue, re-applying for financial aid, identifying and pursuing summer work or internship opportunities. In many colleges, however, students lack regular access to quality, individualized advising for help with these decisions. This suggests that many of the strategies we have used to help students access college in the first place may be equally effective at helping them have successful college careers.

For instance, I think there's a lot of room for more personalized messaging and nudges to:

  • Provide students with recommendations of course sequences to pursue based on their field of interest;
     
  • Prompt students to make use of campus-based academic supports at key points during the semester;
     
  • Motivate students to participate in affinity groups and activities on campus that relate to their interests/identity.

I think it's an open question about how effectively random social media messages can support first gen students.

First, students are flooded with information through Facebook, Twitter, etc. It's unclear to me how to make important information or advice about college stand out from the rest of the information they are receiving. Second, my sense is that the particular social media platforms students use are constantly evolving, and in general I think that policy-minded adults (myself included) will tend to be a couple steps behind whichever platform kids are using.

That being said, there's some really interesting research about how social nudges through social network platforms can positively influence individual decision-making. For instance, there was a study done on Election Day 2010 about the impact of Facebook including a nudge at the top of users’ news feeds to vote. Facebook users could click a button to indicate they had voted and also could see which of their friends had voted. The social information in particular led to meaningful increases in whether individuals voted on Election Day.

I think there's potential in the context of postsecondary access and success to similarly leverage social networks and focused nudges to influence decision-making at key stages in students' college trajectories, such as whether people register for college entrance exams or whether students complete the FAFSA.

I think there's potential in the context of postsecondary access and success to similarly leverage social networks and focused nudges to influence decision-making at key stages in students' college trajectories, such as when people apply for financial aid, scholarships or internships and how they access services and opportunities once on campus.

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Ben Castleman is Acting Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Virginia. He has received numerous awards and grants for his research on ways to use personalized outreach to improve college access and success. Before completing his doctoral work at Harvard, Ben was a teacher and district administrator at The Met Center school district in Providence, RI. He is a graduate of Brown University. 

This blog is part of the joint Demos and SparkAction project, First to Finish College.