Starting (& Finishing) College with a Plan

August 12, 2013

A talented community college educator I know told me the first generation students she sees who are successful enter college with a basic plan. What she means by this is some general blueprint for their education.

Admittedly, this takes additional work because first generation students often lack mentors and family members who can help them create this blueprint.  A truly informed perspective of where college can take you, and where you want to go, is something that takes time. 

This educator does not suggest that it is realistic for everyone to enroll in college with their major and projected career path already decided. But she does believe it is possible, and essential, to set some concert goals for exploring that path, and for finishing a degree within a certain time frame. 

She told me that: “Trepidation, starting/stopping, adding/dropping [courses], keeps students floundering with indecision, accruing unnecessary credits, and spending excessive money to do so.”

For many first generation students graduating from high school and even enrolling in college or a professional certification program of any type is a huge accomplishment. It can be daunting to arrive at what seems like an apex only to realize that it is the first step of a whole other, larger more complex mountain that needs climbing. (A mountain that leads to an even potentially larger and more confusing journey once college is over and the need to start a career kicks in.)

This is a large part of why a step-by-step approach with a constant eye on (and timeframe for) moving forward, is so important to first generation students.  This is an important point to remember for students themselves, but also for those advising and mentoring them.  “I may not know exactly where I’m headed, but I know I’m going in the right direction,” is a powerful notion.


Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a national policy organization. She is a first generation college graduate with a B.S. from Cornell University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Jennifer Wheary