Getting the Full Value of College

September 26, 2013

Helping first-gens experience all that college has to offer.

One of the offices for which I have responsibility at Cornell focuses on increasing the presence and academic success of under-represented students. This mission is an important part of the culture of Cornell, a university founded on the premise of being a place where any student can find instruction in any course of study. 

Recently, we spoke with a number of first-generation college students who had just graduated with Bachelor’s degrees from Cornell.  We found strong gratitude, since all had successfully reached this destination with great pride.  However, as our interviews went deeper, we discovered that nearly none of these graduates had taken full advantage of spending four years at a major research institution.  

They had focused on the single goal of the degree, and in so doing had missed a huge range of options and opportunities for transformative learning experiences, some with significant regret.

Perhaps most alarming to us were number of graduates who felt that they had completed the “wrong” major.  It was so many, we began to see a pattern. Many students said they learned about additional academic fields and options later in their undergraduate careers, and felt that it was too difficult -- because of additional course load or time-to-degree expense--to pursue what may have been a better match to their interests or careers.  

A compounding factor for many was a sense of obligation to family that included, for them, a specific program of study chosen at the outset (usually with a particular professional path in mind) and a focus on not taking too much time or expense, even when they had strong financial aid support. 

Most students, regardless of background, are unfamiliar with the wide range of subjects taught at the university level.  They are also often unaware that those who go on to medical, law, or business schools can major in just about anything as long as basic pre-requisites are fulfilled.  

Large numbers of high-achieving first-generation students have succeeded by being tremendously resourceful “solo operators” who may have played significant roles of responsibility in their families.  They synthesize information quickly and are decisive- skills that can close off opportunities in the complex and unfamiliar university environment rather than expand them.

From Getting In to Getting the Most Out of College

A number of organizations and individuals work hard to encourage and enroll first-generation students in top-ranked institutions of higher education, but no one works harder than the students themselves.  Recent studies have pointed to the alarming number of well-qualified low-income and would-be first-generation high school graduates who choose to forgo college for many reasons.

It makes sense, then, that reaching the goal of admission to an elite institution is regarded by many as “having made it” in terms of opening the doors of opportunity.  

What is less clear to many is that once inside the institution, there are many more possible directions to be explored.

These students can be like the owners of highly sophisticated smart phones - people we all know - who not only fail to make use of the many tools and apps, but don’t even know what they are. 

Examining the institutional data along with a survey of recent first-generation graduates of one college at Cornell University, we found confirmation of some related issues and insight into others that will help us provide better targeted and more supportive services along with detailed and explanatory “users guides” to the university for our students.

It's like paying for a first-class ticket, and then riding in economy. 

We’ve found that many first-generation students often delay seeking official advice from faculty or staff, hoping things will work out and rely mostly on friends.  A certain level of “imposter syndrome” can make first-generation students reluctant to step forward either to identify themselves or to seek assistance or advice.  Not knowing the “hidden curriculum” of how institutional bureaucracies in higher education work, these students hang back, hoping to learn by observing, or simply opt out of opportunities that seem not to be intended for them.  The institutions reward entrepreneurial students who seek out opportunities and let programs fill on a first-come, first-served basis, providing information and applications to those who express interest.  

In other words, rather than making choices not to be part of research opportunities or not to study abroad, large numbers of first-generation students are unaware that there is even a choice to be made. They may not know how these opportunities come to others.

It's like paying for a first-class ticket, and then riding in economy.  Many students are sitting in their higher education seats, so focused on arrival at a degree that they neglect to watch the film, ask for the meal, adjust the comfort of the chair, or use the blanket when cold.  On campus, it means not making use of the counseling center, an academic advisor, faculty office hours, special programs, undergraduate research, and so many other opportunities that not only make the journey more comfortable, but transform the nature of the experience upon arrival.

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AT Miller headshot

A.T. Miller is the Associate Vice Provost for Academic Diversity at Cornell University, where he is part of a collective of five who manage overall university diversity policy, including initiatives to support first-generation college students.  He has a PhD in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a musician and poet.




This blog is part of the joint Demos-SparkAction project,  First to Finish College.
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A.T. Miller