For students who are among the first in their family to attend college, the transition to higher education can be scary. Underserved students may have to overcome significant financial obstacles or a lack of support at home that their more affluent peers may not face. With those pressures, it’s no surprise the journey to a college degree can include a lot of fear, anxiety, and confusion.
In families that prioritize college, a degree represents the next logical step in reaching a career. But not all families share this belief. To families without college degree holders, higher education may seem like a superfluous luxury—or a financial impossibility. For others, it may simply be something they don’t know very much about. That’s why it’s so important to help underserved students see a degree as a worthwhile investment in and viable option for their future. Fortunately, there are ways to help communicate the value of higher education and ease some of the uncertainty and barriers underserved students can face when considering college costs.
Recognize Family Financial Barriers to College
Parental support plays a huge role in a student’s journey to and through college, but what if a student doesn’t have it? Your first step as an academic guide is to learn the challenges you’re up against with some students, including strong opinions about the financial barriers to college. Some families may actively discourage their children from attending college, viewing it as an expensive and unnecessary effort that won’t make a significant difference in their future. In fact, parents may worry that a degree can set students back further by saddling them with unnecessary debt.
Besides limited family support, underserved students may have spent their high school years concerned with more immediate problems, such as food or housing insecurity. This leaves less time to study, earn strong grades, and evaluate college options. These students simply may have not had the opportunity (and luxury) to consider the future and all of its possibilities. In many cases, students from low-income backgrounds have to work to support their families, making it even harder for them to invest the time and effort in advanced study following high school.
Before helping underserved students consider college, it’s imperative to understand the barriers and potential family skepticism working against higher education. To these students, college may have been viewed as a dangerous proposition that they’ve been coached to fear. Some families may grapple with legacies of exclusion in higher education. And for others, their family’s identity may be heavily driven by a lack of college experience in favor of trades or other professions. Instead of dismissing those long-held family beliefs and histories, acknowledge the student’s concerns and experiences. Take time, as well, to understand their goals and dreams before moving to the next step. Remember, too, that students don’t necessarily face a dichotomous choice between college and other options. Instead, there are ways for a college education to enhance work in the trades, a family business, a military career, and more.
Validate College as a Wise Investment
Now that you’ve learned about a student’s concerns regarding college, you can have a discussion with them about why a degree makes sense. Arming students with information on the long-term benefits of college and a realistic understanding of its up-front costs can help them make an informed decision that will impact the rest of their lives. Helping validate college as a smart investment is often the first step towards motivating students to attend. In many cases, this may involve unteaching what a student has been told their whole life.
Yes, you should acknowledge that college presents an additional time and financial expense, but students need to know that there are still many reasons why the benefits outweigh the cost:
- Greater lifetime career earnings
- Stronger job security
- Higher career satisfaction
- Preparation for the careers of tomorrow
It’s also important for students to understand that lower-cost degree options exist, such as community college. Furthermore, flexible part-time and online study options make it easier than ever for students to simultaneously take classes while working. If they financially contribute to their family, they likely can continue to do so while earning a college degree.
Identify Realistic Career Paths
Another important step in validating college is to show the rewarding professions available in fields they may not have known about. For many high school students, a general lack of awareness of career paths presents a big barrier to earning a degree. And why wouldn’t it? For these students, spending tens of thousands of dollars on a degree that doesn’t guarantee a better job seems a poor trade off. They may have only ever seen their parents or guardians work in fields that don’t require a degree, so these students—like so many of us—simply don’t see the full range of career options in their daily experience.
Often, the only other professions students are aware of are those high-profile roles they see in social media, TV, movies, and other pop culture. This may include careers in medicine, law, athletics, or music. Not surprisingly, many feel these careers are out of reach or find that they don’t actually require a degree at all. These options can seem limiting, and leave students feeling uninspired when it comes to finding a great career fit for their talents and interests. Fortunately for you, most students haven’t even scratched the surface of career options, and there are numerous tools to explore options for what to do for a living.
Explore Financial Aid Together
Now that a student understands the long-term value of a college degree and its practical application toward a career, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: cost and student loan debt. For students who come from families who struggle financially, college expense can be a conversation stopper. Again, though, it’s important to fully enumerate and explore the options available.
If a student comes from a family where college was never considered, you may have to start with the basics, taking care not to assume students or their families are familiar with terms and options you may take for granted. You can support them by providing a basic explanation of financial aid and how it works, important terms, and why it’s so important. This conversation may open up a world of financial options outside of loans that the student had no idea about.
This is also a good time to show students options for earning those scholarships that could play a major role in cutting their college cost burden, including how they can start winning these awards while still in high school. Another key element students will need help with is the FAFSA. You’ll want to explain that this is the application administered by the U.S. Department of Education that shows a family’s financial capacity to pay for college. It’s vital that students know this is how colleges, foundations, and state agencies decide on awarding financial aid. You may offer to guide them through the process of completing the FAFSA application as well.
Offer Ongoing Support
For those without parent approval of or family experience with college, you may be a crucial part of a vital support system they need to make this big decision. These students may need your guidance and support to keep them motivated and focused on attending college, equipped with the resources they need to navigate the cost. This includes advocating for them during the college search and application process, and maybe even as they take their first step into a college classroom.
For more resources designed to help you support your students, visit our Counselor Toolkit. It includes many tips, guides, and materials designed to assist counselors as they guide their students through the college application process. This includes information specifically for community-based organization (CBO) counselors who support students from low-income families.
About Daniel Goodson
Daniel Goodson is a former Content Developer for USF’s Office of Innovative Education. He enjoys helping students and their families streamline the college application process by sharing new trends that impact outreach, applying, and admissions.