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When colleges send new students 450 emails, they are part of the problem

I discovered at my first and only college advisement session at the end of my sophomore year that I needed just one more semester to graduate. (I had overloaded my schedule and taken summer courses.) The advisement lasted 10 minutes as there was a line of students outside the door. The adviser never suggested I explore study abroad or internships to enhance my resume, and I didn't realize those options existed.

As a first-generation college student, I didn't know all that I didn't know, and neither did my parents. Research shows such students often miss out on opportunities, fail to connect with professors or seek help when they fall behind. Even students who graduate at the top of their high school classes are unprepared for the maze of bureaucracy, deadlines and forms. Too many kids disappear in the mist and never graduate.

At two recent education conferences I attended, a variety of experts urged greater supports for first-generation students, especially those from low-income households for whom an unexpected $500 bill can scuttle their dreams.

Several researchers cited Georgia State University as a role model. Realizing some students were dropping out over as little as $300, Georgia State created Panther Retention Grants to help cover modest financial shortfalls. Last year, the program enabled nearly 2,000 GSU students to remain in the classroom and on track to earn a degree.

GSU earned a shout-out this week from Bill Gates, who, after visiting the campus this year, wrote in his blog, "Just over a decade ago, GSU’s overall graduation rate was 32 percent. Among Hispanic students, it was 22 percent. Among African-Americans, 29 percent. Today, the university’s graduation rate tops 54 percent, a 22-point improvement, among the highest increases in the nation during this period. What’s more, there is no achievement gap at GSU. African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students all graduate at rates at or above those of the student body overall. GSU is one of the only public universities in the country to achieve this goal. And over the last four years, GSU has conferred more degrees to African-Americans than any other college or university in the U.S."

A key change GSU made: It stopped blaming students for failing and examined the obstacles it was placing in their path. It identified data markers that signaled trouble, sent out alerts when those markers were triggered and intervened immediately with counseling to get students back on track.

"We are now tracking every single student every day for 800 risk factors," said Timothy Renick, GSU vice president for enrollment management and student success, at an Education Writers Association seminar earlier this week in Atlanta. "When you begin to deliver this kind of attention on scale, it makes a difference for all students. The biggest gains have been for students most tripped up by the bureaucracy we had in the past. These are students who lack parents or brothers and sisters who can guide them through."

Speaking this summer at an EWA conference in Washington, Erin Ward Bibo, who oversees Career Education and College & Career Preparedness Programming for the District of Columbia Public Schools, said low-income, first-generation students often thrived in high school "because they never bothered their teachers and did their work."

However, that approach doesn't pay off in college where students benefit by showing up at office hours to get to know their professors and ask for help, she said.

Research shows having a parent with no college experience is most predictive of not succeeding in college, even more so than poverty. "There is a lot of self-advocacy required in college. Our students wait until it is almost too late to call for help," said Bibo.

We've assumed 18-year-olds should be mature enough to navigate college, even though some campuses are as complex and layered as the IRS. For example, Bridget Burns, founding director of the University Innovation Alliance, said one university mapped its contacts with students from the point of acceptance to the day they arrived on campus and found students received 450 emails and had 50 different portals to log into.

"If you are a first-generation college student and you are getting 450 emails, that is basically saying stop checking your email. And you are going to ignore some crucial ones," said Burns, at this week's EWA seminar. "We’re trying to get better."

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.