College Guidebook Targets First-Generation Students

Tryperusing guidebooks for higher education, and you’re likely to find these college resource materials geared toward your average student. Although the definition of “average student” has been shifting of late, few books have been designed exclusively to help first-generation students navigate the world of higher education.

In July, the Center for Student Opportunity (CSO) released the 2011 College Access and Opportunity Guide, a comprehensive college guidebook designed to help low-income, firstgeneration college-bound students make their college dreams a reality. This book is CSO’s second expanded guide. Its first such publication was released in 2008.

By November of last year, the center estimated that 15,000 of its 2008 books had been distributed, and another 3,000 of this newest version. This publication has mainly been released to the center’s college and university partners, and other organizational partners. The book’s publisher, Sourcebooks, has also distributed it to major online stores and to bookstores nationwide.

More than 400 pages of the 2011 guide include information on institutions committed to the success of first-generation students; articles providing college advice; a KnowHow2Go guide outlining key steps required to effectively get into college; and numerous pages dedicated to adult mentors of students seeking ideas on how to best support these youngsters. This edition includes, for the first time, a section in Spanish for mentors.

The guidebook – and the one published in 2008 – is an outgrowth of the Center for Student Opportunity’s mission and its website. This Maryland-based, nonprofit organization was established in 2005 to promote higher education opportunities for first-generation and other historically underserved populations. Its programs have been designed to serve colleges and universities, counselors and community- based organizations in support of their college access goals.

We see these students going to community colleges and two-year-vocational schools, but unfortunately those channels aren’t doing a good job in helping these students pursue four-year degrees. We see many of these students dropping out after one to two years,” said Matt Rubinoff, executive director, Center for Student Opportunity.

According to USA Today, 89 percent of lowincome, first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree (even though eight out of 10 among all students expect to attain a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Department of Education).

The center was established to make students “better consumers in their college process.” “Students need to know the true array of opportunities for first-generation students and specifically the four-year-college opportunities at col-leges and universities that are there to support their success,” said Rubinoff. “We tend to coach students to approach their college search with a set of questions and to look at schools based on how much they cost, how close they are to home, what they offer to study, etc. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. For firstgeneration students, it is important that they pick a school that will also help them be successful, with programs that support this specific group of students.”

The center provides students with this information, initially on its website and now in its guidebooks. Online, they are able to research colleges – and what these colleges specifically offer them – and send information about themselves to their schools of interest.

“It was the website that gave way to the publication of this guide,” said Rubinoff. “As we were sharing the website with counselors and students across the country, people were responding enthusiastically to it. But they felt that a certain population would respond better to print because some students had limited computer access.”

In the most recent printed guide, 284 colleges and universities are highlighted with a specific focus on their attractiveness to first-generation students. Beyond the basic information that college guidebooks typically provide, the 2011 College Access and Opportunity Guide details the access and outreach programs that specific schools have. For example, for Molloy College in New York, the book makes mention of the schools’ TRIO Program, an academic enrichment program, and a mentoring Latinas program. Student population profiles, student quotes and other vital school information are also provided.

Asked how the colleges and universities are selected for the guide, Rubinoff explained that they are partners of the Center for Student Opportunity. These institutions have chosen to partner with the center to help promote its efforts at serving first-generation students. They contribute financially to CSO to help it produce the book and website, and in return are featured in the guidebook and website. These schools receive guidebooks to give to high schools and community organizations of their choosing, while the center helps them partner with community- based organizations in their college recruitment travels. In addition, CSO offers program development, consulting and technical assistance to institutions.

“We are not saying that these are the best schools that serve first-generation students, but it is a representation of many schools that support this group of students,” said Rubinoff. “As we get more colleges and universities to buy into the CSO program, the number of them on our website and book will grow accordingly.

The very fact that these 284 schools are supporting and partnering with CSO lets first-generation students know they are committed to attracting and supporting this niche of student. In addition, the guidebook offers these students information about support networks and financial help from colleges and organizations that is geared specifically to them. “Our students have found both the guidebook and essential to their college searches. Each is able to navigate and target information that’s more important to them,” said Debbie Greenberg, a College Bound counselor from St. Louis, Mo. Unique to this most recent 2010- 11 guide, students are introduced to the KnowHow2Go campaign, and key advice coming out of this movement. The KnowHow2Go campaign is a separate initiative (in partnership with the American Council on Education, the Ad Council and the Lumina Foundation) that is a public service education campaign aimed at getting more students into college. Its message – which has been translated into the guidebook – is for students to follow four basic steps to get into college. Those steps include: 1) Be a pain (in a good way), 2) Push yourself, 3) Find the right fit, and 4) Put your hands on some cash.

While this message might be simple, the guidebook provides more than 40 pages detailing what exact steps students need to take within these categories to successfully make it into the right college. With the fourth bit of advice, the book lists the state partners and scholarship material that can help students receive financial support for college.

In addition to KnowHow2Go, this recent guide dedicates another 40-plus pages to articles that provide advice on a host of subjects. This advice ranges from information on being homeless while pursuing college; sports and college connections; the benefits of Hispanic and Black colleges and universities; single teen moms seeking an education; the college application writing process; getting free money for college; and even information about visiting colleges for free with fly-in programs.

Many of the articles included in the guidebook are also on CSO’s website, but for the first time have been added to this 2011 edition of print. Some of those offering advice are students themselves who have received scholarships from CSO (the center annually provides 10 scholarships of $2,000 for each year of college) and who, as scholarship winners, are invited to write blogs onthe center’s website. They now are included in the most recent publication of the guidebook.

Another new section of the book, “For Mentors,” offers information to those adults who could potentially help a youngster get into college. “Students have adults in their lives that can help them. It might be a parent or another adult figure who want to help, but aren’t experts themselves on how to do that. This provides good information and advice geared toward adults,” said Rubinoff.

An added benefit to this year’s guidebook is that the mentor information is also offered in Spanish, for Spanish-speaking parents of firstgeneration students.

“The new edition to the guide this year is translated to Spanish. We have been asked for a while whether our information is offered in Spanish. And while we feel pretty strongly that students in American high schools have a strong grasp of English, a lot of the adult figures in their lives only speak English as a second language. Providing this information in Spanish makes it easier for these mentors to help.”

While other adults in students’ lives, such as counselors or educators, might already know how to help students get into good colleges, this guidebook still offers them tools and outlines of material for them to better create workshops for these youngsters. They can also benefit from this year’s Guide to the Guide, a workbook easily downloaded from the Web that gives exercises and activities for students to do as part of the college process.

For many first-generation students, the 2011 College Access and Opportunity Guide might be their first exposure to the Center for Student Opportunity or its website. They may come across the book in a counselor’s office or at a community center, and then follow up with a visit to the website. Either way, students will discover that there is more support out there for them in achieving college success than they might have realized. 

In particular, CSO hopes to reach students during their high school years. First-year high school students might benefit from the guide and center by learning to prepare for college by choosing high school courses carefully or by becoming involved in out-of-school activities. Older high school students can benefit from the guide in learning about the supportive colleges and universities out there, and about financial aid. Some middle school students might come across this information earlier on, and for them, seeing in advance what college can look like for them is also a plus.

While thousands of students have accessed CSO information for first-generation students, many more have never heard of the center. “We are still a young enough organization that there are many who don’t even know what we are doing or who we are,” admitted Rubinoff. “Our goal, though, is to be a true national clearinghouse. We want to grow in that direction so we are representative of the universe of colleges and universities and the opportunities they offer first-generation students.” 

For now, the center is looking ahead at its next five years, reaching out to more students and schools through its books and website. “We won a grant recently, and with that, our goal now is to engage 50,000 students in the Opportunities Scholars program in the next three years [students are invited to be a part of this program when they log onto the website; through this, they receive newsletters and support online for the college process]. We also want to grow our scholarship program. We see a unique opportunity to be a leader in scholarships for first-generation students explicitly,” said Rubinoff.