It's Academic: Advising First Generation Students

June 11, 2013

What role should professors play in helping first generation students succeed?

Based on decades of years of teaching and advising in four very different postsecondary institutions, I believe that as professors we have a unique opportunity to help first generation students succeed; and that academic advising and support should not be left solely to student service units of the university. 

Our opportunity as professors is unique. The instructor-student relationship is one highly respected by students.  We professors enjoy great credibility and a privileged position in relation to our students.  Inherent in that privilege is the obligation to use our positions to assist others. I advocate for an active role for academic advisers, one that goes far beyond advising students about degree requirements and approving degree plans.

According to a 2010 Department of Education study, 50 percent of college students are first generation, meaning they have parents who have no education beyond high school. Research shows that first generation students are more likely to be low-income and to be minorities. They are often less academically prepared than traditional college students. What happens to these students?

From the university’s perspective, one of the major concerns is how to retain these students because those who drop out represent a financial liability to the institution. Federally funded programs such as TRIO that include the McNair Scholars Program for first generation students report some success in retaining students. 

Many universities and colleges have developed “freshman experience” courses that support all students and introduce them to college life and the postsecondary academic experience.  Some residential universities connect roommates before the first semester begins in hopes that knowing someone will lessen the loneliness of the first days.  Students are informed about financial aid assistance as well as counseling (both professional and peer) and career assistance. 

Yet most of these services are provided by the student service wing of the university.  Where are their academic advisers?

What role can and should professors play in helping students succeed? The answer depends on how academic advising is understood by faculty, departments, and other postsecondary administrative units.

Peggy King, past president of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), says that developmental advising is based on the establishment of a relationship between advisor and student and stands in contrast to quick, registration-oriented advising.

The difference in approach matters to all students, but it is particularly critical to first generation students.  Such a difference might affect the first generation student’s ability to be successful.

An real-world example of the differing understandings of academic advising occurred not too long ago at a small private university where there was a discussion about the number of advisees each faculty member should advise.  Business faculty thought the minimum advising load for each faculty member should be 45+ students.  The social work and psychology faculty felt that an advising load of 20 students was the maximum.  It became clear that faculty in different departments held radically different views of what constituted "advising." 

If the responsibility of the "academic advisor" is to help students with their degree plans, answer employment-related questions, and see these students once a semester for course registration, then one might have time to advise 45-60 students. If the responsibility of the advisor includes helping students develop their academic, career, and life skills as well as learn to navigate the culture of academia, then 20 advisees is a lot. 

Unfortunately, in this instance, University administration favored the narrow definition of advising. Basically, it became expected that all faculty in the university would advise 45-60 students as part of their workload.  

This greatly affected the quality of advising experienced by students and gave faculty at this university very little time to really get to know their advisees.

read Ruth's blog on faculty advisors >>



Ruth M. Bounous, PhD, LCSW, is a first-generation college student and retired faculty member from both Cornell University and Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, TX. She is currently a psychotherapist in private practice.




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

Ruth M. Bounous