Rising college prices and student debt are a huge national concern, for good reason. Here at Cleveland State University, an urban-serving campus where about one-third of undergraduates are first-generation college students, we’re fortunate that our tuition is in the lowest tier for U.S. four-year institutions. Price is still a factor, of course, but it just isn’t the biggest barrier to success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Instead, we’re focused on the many other challenges faced by our undergraduates, many of whom are underrepresented, nontraditional, transfer students or first gen, as noted—or a mixture of these. We’re convinced that universities like ours can move the needle by focusing intently on the many support needs of disadvantaged students beyond money.
Those needs are extensive and haven’t always been met as well as they should be at many institutions. That, of course, isn’t from a lack of trying. But colleges need to learn from their past efforts, starting with an honest assessment of where they’ve fallen short. The challenges we’ve faced—and the changes needed to address them—have taught us a lot and may have lessons for other universities, too.
All of us in higher ed need to face facts: most students just aren’t taking advantage of the support we make available for college persistence and career readiness. They face big nonfinancial challenges. Many are working part- or full-time jobs, commuting and supporting family. Time is their most precious commodity. They don’t have the luxury to focus on long-term strategic planning for their careers. It’s on us, as educators, to make everything we do relevant and valuable to them in an immediate way.
As many colleges try to understand the problem and what’s needed to solve it, they can draw on plenty of evidence that first-generation students in particular need targeted help. A recent survey on first-generation student success, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, drew a high-achieving set of respondents, with half reporting a spring 2022 grade point average above 3.5. Yet even among these academically successful undergraduates, 29 percent agreed with the statement “I feel like I belong only in certain spaces on campus.” Nine percent said they don’t feel like they belong on campus at all.
Leaders at every institution should think hard about how they can make each student feel welcome and supported in every space on campus, including career development and exploration.
At Cleveland State, our key insight has been that we must do the work needed to bring services together in a one-stop-shop format, so undergraduates don’t have to spend time figuring out how to navigate vital assistance.
Holistic, Practical, Tailored Supports
One of our holistic moves was to put pre-professional advising and career services in a joint office so the two don’t operate as separate entities.
Another was to be purposeful about our communications strategy, aiming for multiple touch points with the university’s 16,000 students without subjecting them to information overload. To make this happen, we have a single communications leader in charge of coordinating emails and other outreach to students so we can be selective about which topics students hear about and from which office leaders.
We try to ensure that every communication has a friendly tone and shows our personal interest in helping students thrive.
The final part of this approach is to enlist faculty as partners in career advising. Professors increasingly work in tandem with career services, building relationships with students and showing them how classroom and career are connected. Such moves may or may not be specifically applicable for other institutions—but more broadly, university leaders should consider ways to streamline approaches and touchpoints with students with a lens toward a holistic experience rather than a disjointed one.
Adopting an intensively practical mind-set is important. Being mindful of barriers students face in accessing basic resources that advance their career paths and employability—and finding ways to remove these barriers—is essential.
Cleveland State University was the first public institution to sign on to Kaplan’s All Access program, where students can prepare for a number of certification, licensure and graduate entry exams with private preparation for free, removing the financial barrier to preparation many of our students face.
Beyond that, our Career Development and Exploration office focuses on networking and building experience through job shadowing, mentor connections, assistance locating internships and, of course, job placements.
Additionally, we work with the nonprofit Dress for Success one day each semester to make a free professional outfit available to every student. Hundreds of undergraduates have taken advantage of this service.
Our new Iris Booth, a professional headshot photo booth, has also been very popular because students understand that their online brand is just as important as their in-person persona.
Practical concerns inevitably involve targeted financial needs as well. To help address that, we’ve created a fund to help needy students pay for applications and entrance exams, travel, and appropriate attire for interviews. This type of funding is an important part of the consideration set for universities seeking to support underserved students.
Our third big push is one that many colleges are taking on: mitigating barriers that exist within higher education that impede student success.
At Cleveland State, the Graduation Success Coaching Office is the center of these efforts. Graduation coaches are caring professionals who pay close attention to students, build strong relationships and offer or coordinate services and interventions. Their work centers on interventions that have been proven by a large and growing body of research. Coaches help to support the culture of the university community and establish connections with community members who can influence student success. Coaches establish strong relationships with students at risk for dropping out and help them develop educational and career goals. They position students to visualize a successful future.
Graduation coaches also encourage student self-efficacy by building relationships and pathways to resources. This approach gets results. In the 2018–19 academic year, our Graduation Success Coaching Office reported an 82 percent first-to-second-year retention rate, compared to 51 percent for the same population the prior year, when students were not receiving coaching support.
Every college making efforts like these will benefit from adopting the same growth mind-set that we all encourage in our students. In my own case, that means thinking hard about what I could be doing differently and better. For example, the need for students to have financial assistance throughout their college careers to get to graduate/professional schools or into a job is critical.
I took this kind of privilege for granted when I started at Cleveland State University. I now fundraise annually for our foundation accounts to make sure that we can help meet the needs our students have aside from building their résumés.
Along with that kind of introspection, it’s vital to reframe success beyond the practicalities of resources and week-to-week campus life. At Cleveland State, we want our career support services to be oversubscribed! Having a long waiting list to see our coaches would be a good problem to have. Ditto a line out the door for students who want headshots.
If we get there, a few new headaches like this would be a small price to pay in return for what we’re convinced we can accomplish for students.
More coverage of the Student Voice survey: 9 Ways to Elevate First-Generation Student Support.