The most recent report from Common App’s “Deadline Update'' series highlights one demographic that can no longer be ignored: first-generation applicants. The number of first-generation applicants in America has increased by 22% from the 2019-2020 school year, exactly double that of continuing-education students.

The chances of first-generation applicants decreasing is unlikely, so universities must know everything they can about the dynamic challenges first-generation students face, ways to provide support at different stages of the college experience, and ultimately how to increase enrollment from this group. We’ve gathered strategies to navigate it in four simple steps.

#1: As cliché as it may be, understanding your audience is key

When you think of a “first-generation college student,” what comes to mind? If you thought of a student with parents who did not attend college, you would only be partially correct. The reality is that there are many different ways to be “first-generation.” Let’s start with the basics. 

The U.S. Department of Education has a handy definition for first-generation students: they are students whose parent(s) or guardian(s) did not complete a bachelor’s degree. Most importantly, this definition does not account for siblings and extended family who may support a student through college. Inside Higher Ed uses this gap to define four levels of “first-generationness.” 

Level 1: Parents started college, but did not complete their program.

Level 2: Siblings attended or completed college, but parents did not.

Level 3: Extended family attended or completed college, but parents did not.

Level 4: No siblings, parents, or extended family attended or completed college.

The variety of first-generation college students doesn’t stop there. First-generationness often intersects with ethnicity, class, and disability in ways unique to each student. 

Understanding the makeup of your student body and prospective target audience is critical to ensure that the campaigns and messaging that you’re serving resonates. Working with a partner like Net Natives who can help survey and research the motivations, barriers and background of your audiences is step one. 

#2: Consider the different student journeys

As higher education marketers, you’ll know that it is somewhat common for some students’ degree journeys to span across a number of years, as they contend with conflicting priorities such as work and family. What’s more, is for first-gen students, they don’t have the familial support to help navigate the complicated admission and college process. 

 “I wish people really understood that first-generation students sometimes start from scratch. How do you sign up for a class? How do you even go to college? I mean, do I just walk in and say, ‘Hey, I want to go to American River College?’ That’s literally what I had to do to figure it out.” - Jaqueline Ruvalcaba, a first-generation student at the American River College 

But who’s best to offer advice and support to these students? Those who have lived-in experience. Alma Lopez grew up in a Mexican immigrant household where she couldn’t ask her parents for advice on how to apply for college. She is now the 2022 American School Counselor Association School Counselor of the Year. Her advice on how universities can help students become one of the first in their family to finish college?

1. Don’t assume what information students can access

2. Get parents involved

3. De-mystify the college experience.

Universities should think about how they can answer scary questions during the enrollment process and beyond using principles outlined by Alma. Perhaps a simply worded content hub or blog with additional content for non-english-speaking parents, or first-generation student ambassador vlogs which can act as guides to incoming students like them. Some institutions even offer family programming during orientation or family weekends. 

#3. Tailor your messaging to solve their struggles

If half the battle to increase enrollment of first-generation students is considering their unique journey, the second half is attracting those students to your university with the supports you’ve created. Based on a 2022 study by Inside Higher Ed, only half of the 1,200 universities examined nation-wide publicly advertised programs to support their first-generation population. 

With those applicants increasing rapidly, universities could be missing out on a huge opportunity to attract students by making their programs and resources known. Academic support, institutional or federal TRIO programs, community and belongingness, and financial assistance which covers materials beyond tuition are like a big, flashing “yes” sign to uncertain students. 

#4: Personalize your ads to the different segments

So, if you’ve done work to understand your first-generation audience and you have content ready to support them, the next step would be to segment and target ads towards potential first-generation students. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got just the tool for you.

With Akero, you can connect with every kind of student, considering the unique journeys of first-generation students, with personalized nurture comms. By building dynamic forms and automated workflows, you can ensure that the right messages are delivered at the right time, with the solutions to their individual challenges. 

Putting in All Together...

Even though first-generation students must frequently overcome personal, financial, and academic barriers in college, do not underestimate this group. 

“The good thing about being a first-generation college student is you have the drive to keep finding more resources. But I think people assume that we’re just confused, and that we don’t know anything.” - Perla Duran from Occidental College

First-generation students will continue to enroll at high rates as colleges become more aware of the nontraditional student journey. Many colleges have a unique opportunity to lead the charge by creating and advertising resources for these driven students to access. If you’d like to talk more about how you can leverage this, get in touch. 

Article by

Kyah Probst