POV: When should parents and children start thinking about and planning for college?
Kathleen Cushman: The earlier, the better! As soon as children understand that one day they’ll be going to high school, families should let them know they expect that college will follow. In middle school, take kids to visit nearby colleges — for special events, or just to walk around, soak up the atmosphere and check out opportunities that are open to people in the community. Kids will get the picture that college is an exciting place to prepare for an interesting future — and families will start thinking and talking about what the path to college entails.
POV: When should students begin thinking about college more seriously, and what can they do to prepare academically?
Starting in the middle grades and going right through high school, the academic classes that kids take have a big impact on their readiness for college. If schools track them into low-challenge classes, they will not end up well prepared. Their teachers should be asking them to try new things, explore big ideas, read all they can about the things that interest them and express their thinking to others — orally, in writing and through the arts. Kids also need support, from families and schools alike, in coming to class prepared to learn. But most important, all children need adults to recognize their individual strengths. Building on those strengths, we can challenge them with tasks that they both value and can expect to succeed at by trying hard.
What can students do outside the classroom to prepare for college?
Cushman: Regardless of their family resources, all children need time and opportunities to develop as people who have the energy and motivation to get where they want to go in life. Outside of school, adults can help by noticing and affirming young people’s affinities and strengths. What are they drawn to — athletics, the arts, technology, nature, crafts, helping others? In all those areas and more, young people can gain experience in building a knowledge base, overcoming frustration, stretching their skills through practice and organizing themselves to do something meaningful. These are all college-ready skills, so communities must organize the equitable opportunities that will give all young people the chance to develop them.
College tuition has skyrocketed in the last few years. What do families need to know about financial aid?
Cushman: Students and their families face tough decisions when it comes to paying for college. For example, almost certainly they will have to take out loans, but it is important not to take more loans than a college graduate can reasonably expect to pay back, based on the field of work he or she plans to enter. Most students hold paying jobs during college, but that can also present a dilemma: Too much outside work takes away important time they need to do well in their studies.
Some solutions: Community colleges cost much less than other colleges and can offer a good start toward a four-year degree, as long as course offerings are of high quality. Four-year public colleges are more affordable than private colleges, so shop around for the best quality and the best price. But don’t rule out a selective private four-year college: If the student can gain admission, need-based scholarships will often cover most of the costs of going there.
You can research financial aid possibilities on many public-service websites (listed in the appendix in “First in the Family: Your College Years”), but beware of private lenders and be sure to read the fine print of any loan arrangement you enter. In the meantime, students can often take free courses at nearby colleges while they are still in high school. Not only will this give them a taste of college, but arriving with a few credits already on their records can cut down on college costs.
POV: What are some challenges that face students who are the first in their families to attend college?
Cushman: First-generation and low-income students often face “culture shock” when they get to college. High school may not have prepared them for the academic demands of college work, especially the reading and writing workload. If most students at the college come from privileged economic backgrounds, first-generation students may also feel social isolation and stress. But their determination and capability brought them to college in the first place, and they can call on those strengths to make the adjustment. By seeking out connections with supportive professors, administrators, and peers — and by going to all their classes, no matter what — they will land on their feet. (Students who have been through the college transition successfully give many more tips in our book and CD “First in the Family: Your College Years.”)
POV: What are some of the challenges that face parents who have not attended college as they try to help their children navigate the application and admissions process?
Cushman: Parents give an important boost just by expressing their strong support for their children going to college. But both parents and students also need experienced people to guide them through the admissions and financial aid processes. Language barriers, immigration status and economic stress all can make it difficult for families to access the information and help they need. A parent’s work schedule may make it impossible to help a student with college visits or applications. Tensions may also arise if the student’s home culture discourages borrowing or expects girls to remain at home during the college years. Often the burden falls on students themselves to keep track of application deadlines, apply for fee waivers, and make sure their parents file their taxes in time for them to complete financial aid forms.
POV: What are some potential stumbling blocks for parents and their first-generation college kids as the kids go to college? What are some tips you can give to make sure parents and kids in that situation communicate well?
Cushman: Unfamiliarity with the college system often complicates parental expectations of where and what their children go on to study at college. For example, parents may believe that courses in business are the path to economic security, but students may want to explore other fields. Many parents do not have the time or money to visit, increasing students’ sense of isolation when away at college. If the college is nearby, parents may expect a student who is overwhelmed with college’s demands to continue to fulfill family responsibilities. And as a student brings home new perspectives, concerns and priorities, a gulf may widen between the student and his or her family members.
It takes empathy and communication to stay connected in these circumstances, but it is worth the trouble on both sides. A student can help by calling home occasionally, writing down for the family important dates, names and mailing addresses, and sharing information about what a day at college includes. The family can help by sending an occasional letter or care package, calling just to say hello and showing interest in what the student is learning. (Students in college share their experiences with this in our book “First in the Family: Your College Years.”)
In the end, having a college graduate in the family will be a source of pride and economic advancement for the whole family. However frustrating the transition, the first-generation college student will be changing the hopes, expectations and actions of many who will follow.
POV: How can first-generation college students find out about the different resources available at colleges that interest them?
Cushman: Colleges are eager to know about students who will represent the first generation in their families to attend college. When you make your first inquiry, be sure to tell the college your situation. Ask for the name and telephone number of someone you can contact if you have questions about your application process. When you fill out the required forms, call that person whenever you have difficulty knowing what to do. When you remind people that you are a first-generation applicant, they will go out of their way to help.
Once you get to college, start making personal connections with people who can help you. For example, before or after the first meeting of any class in which you enroll, introduce yourself to the professor as a first-generation student. Say that you really want to do well in the class and that you may need extra help to do so. The professor can tell you about tutoring help or other college resources for students like you. Just as important, go see your professors during their office hours and let them know if you are having difficulties.
Many colleges have offices of multicultural affairs, student support centers or other offices where students can go for social and academic support and resources. Multicultural clubs, international student groups and peer mentoring networks are also good places to look for supportive friends who will understand and relate to the challenges of your transition. Before long, you yourself will be helping others who are new to the college experience!
» Read an excerpt from "First in the Family: Your High School Years"
Kathleen Cushman is the author of “First in the Family: Your High School Years” and “First in the Family: Your College Years,” two short books that contain advice from first-generation college students. Her work as a writer and researcher for the nonprofit What Kids Can Do brings forward the voices of youth on matters relating to their lives and learning. Her forthcoming book for teachers and parents is “Practice: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery” (Next Generation Press, 2010).