On a sunny Saturday in October, about 500 prospective students and their families gathered on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso for Orange and Blue Day. They met with representatives from financial aid, admissions, and various academic departments in a festival-like atmosphere spread across campus.
The university uses events like this to make college more inviting for families sending their first-ever student to college.
Demystifying college is critical for first-generation students, says Catie McCorry-Andalis, UTEP’s dean of students.
“The families are very supportive of (the students) pursuing a higher education, but they don't always know what that means. We have to kind of demystify a lot of that,” McCorry-Andalis said.
The effort pays off, she said. Once parents are on board, they become invaluable partners in getting their students through college.
“What we know about our students is that they come to us with a tremendous amount of assets, and one of those, as you mentioned, is their family,” McCorry-Andalis said. “We love to capitalize on that.”
As a commuter school, serving a largely first-generation, low-income population, UTEP’s graduation rate isn’t where McCorry-Andalis would like it to be.
In 2016, UTEP’s six-year graduation rate was 38.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. While all universities in the UT System have been charged with raising graduation rates, UTEP administrators feel that six years is not always the appropriate timeline for their students — many of whom are supporting either their parents or their own children.
The university also practices open admission, which allows any high school graduate to enroll, regardless of SAT scores, GPA or other ranking criteria. Competitive universities with full-time students right out of high school, or after a voluntary “gap year,” typically have higher graduation rates, especially when few of those students work off campus.
Rather than trying to recruit other populations to boost graduation rates, McCorry-Andalis said UTEP is sticking to its mission, committing to graduate more of the students it already serves. Family engagement is critical to the effort, she said.
The university has become known for its family engagement, especially for Hispanic families who make up 80 percent of the university population.
Many of the practices do for Hispanic families what historically black colleges and universities have done for black students. HBCUs connect college and community, and knits together cultural and academic identity. For Hispanic students, culture and “familia” are deeply intertwined.
UTEP hosts college fairs in the evenings so that parents can attend, and invites parents to join a parent association, which meets in groups of 10 to 15 once per month on campus. They aren’t there to “helicopter” around their students, said Crystal Saavedra, director of the parent association. When parents are familiar with the campus, building what advisors call “confianza,” they can direct their students toward on-campus resources, like the health center or writing lab. They learn what to look for in their students’ behavior as well. Are they hanging out at home when they should be back on campus? Are they going to study groups in the weeks leading up to finals?
Saavedra also makes sure parents know that she and other staff members are also resources. They offer “compadrazgo” — a surrogate parent or advocate on campus.
“That's pretty much what my role is, being that liaison,” Saavedra said.
Ivy League, take note
While UTEP students are not usually going far from home, their parent-engagement practices are instructive for universities that receive students from across the country and the globe.
Selective universities like Princeton University, are starting to take note. If they want to succeed with first-gen students, they are going to need to climb down from the ivory tower and do some outreach, said Khristina Gonzalez, associate dean and director of access and inclusion at Princeton. She runs the Freshman Scholars Institute, a summer program for first-gen, low income, and minority students. During the summer, students become acquainted with the campus and the many resources available to them. This can help erase any stigma attached to asking for help.
“A lot of our first gen students were extremely successful in high school,” Gonzalez said, “Many, many of them are valedictorians of their high school. So in high school, broadly speaking — not including some of the prep schools — academic resources are coded as remedial. You go there because you need extra help.”
The Freshman Scholars Institute helps students understand their new context. Writing labs and other resources are part of the Princeton experience, Gonzalez said, “This is what you do as a scholar.”
Sierra Gonzales participated in the summer program, and said that it helped her acclimate to campus before the culture shock that awaited in September.
Adjusting to the pace and rigor has been difficult, she said, but she still looks to older students and mentors she met during the Freshman Scholars Institute to help her process the experience. They reinforce what she knows, but might forget: she belongs at Princeton.
Like many students, Sierra Gonzales talks to her mom as often as she can. Thanks to technology, parents can still engage from afar.
At Skidmore College in New York, Angelica Espinoza, also a freshman from San Antonio, talks to her mom two or three times per week. Julio Martinez, who is at the College of New Rochelle just outside of New York City, texts his parents constantly, he said.
Their parents are still their first call when they need something. For parents to then turn their child to the on-campus resources available to them will require, again, confianza and compadrazgo. Parents have to know and trust the institution to care for their sick or worried student.
Anjelica’s mother America Espinoza went with her to move in. Their family road-tripped up the East Coast, making memories and building college into their family story. Now that she’s been on campus, America said, she feels more confident advising her daughter. She knows how far it is from the dorms to the clinic. She knows where campus security is located. She can visualize her daughter’s world.
Sierra Gonzales’s mother Angela Gonzales did not get to visit Princeton. She says it’s unsettling not to fully understand the campus. However, Sierra is independent, she said, and always has been. Angela knows that she has her feet under her, in large part thanks to the Freshman Scholars Institute. She likes knowing that Sierra has access to mentors and staff.
Finances are another barrier many families assume will prevent their student from attaining a degree. Khristina Gonzalez said that, in addition to orientations, the school is trying to do a better job getting dispelling those fears early on.
Princeton’s $70,000 price-tag is intimidating, so the university sends financial aid officers out with their recruiters to explain to students how Princeton can actually be an affordable option, thanks to its substantial need-based financial aid packages. Sierra Gonzales’ financial aid covered all of her expenses, not just tuition.
Colleges can do even more to help first-gen students and their families feel welcome at college, Khristina Gonzalez said. For example, she said, students whose parents, siblings, and neighbors all went to college, the bureaucratic hassle is what it is: inconvenience. But for first-gen students, Gonzalez explained, it’s something more: It’s a signal that they don’t belong.
Georgia State has gone to great lengths to streamline the administrative process of applying, enrolling, and receiving financial aid, said Georgia State provost Timothy Rennick, speaking to the Education Writers Association in 2017, and it has reaped the rewards.
At-risk students at Georgia State graduate above the national average and the university has more at-risk students to begin with.
“The most impactful interventions are common sense issues,” Rennick said, simple solutions like text reminders and an app that links students directly to an enrollment help desk have made the process more service-oriented.
It cost the school $2 million to hire extra advisors to humanize the bureaucracy. They have more than recouped that money as students persist through to graduation, Rennick said.
Enrollment, insurance, and financial aid are just the beginning, Gonzalez said, colleges have plenty of bureaucratic systems where students can get lost along the way.
“We do a lot of intervention work around those experiences,” she said, in reference to the administrative challenges, “both in terms of trying to simplify the actual processes but also in terms of making sure that students are encountering these systems through an interaction with another human.”
None of these changes constitute “special treatment,” Khristina Gonzalez said. They are steps toward equity. Ways to make all students feel like they belong in college.
The Far From Home Series was published with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship.
Bekah McNeel is an education reporter based out of San Antonio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org