Giving Thought: Community support is critical for first-gen college students

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought
Allison Alexander is the Director Strategic Partnerships and Communication at Aspen Community Foundation. ACF with the support of its donors works with a number of nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Throughout the year, we will work to highlight nonprofits in the region.
Allison Alexander/Courtesy photo

College campuses around the country are starting classes and welcoming first-year students. The transition to college from high school can be difficult for any student, but for those whose parents do not themselves have college experience, the challenges can be multiplied. Statistics suggest roughly a quarter of first-generation college students graduate with four-year degrees. 

The reasons for not completing degrees vary across circumstances, but a lack of support in navigating administrative processes can often interrupt a student’s educational trajectory.

When a parent has not had experience with educational bureaucracy, it can be difficult to support their children despite a desire to do so. 

Recognizing that these challenges exist and seeking to minimize the barriers to higher education for those who are interested, various programs around the country have emerged to support first-generation college students. Many of these programs begin working with students well before they graduate high school to develop relationships and skills needed to better ensure long-term academic success. 

Twenty years ago, community partners from Colorado Mountain College (CMC), University of Colorado (CU),  RE-1 school district, and Aspen Community Foundation came together to bring a program modeled after the pre-collegiate development programs from the CU system to the Roaring Fork Valley. The Roaring Fork School District PreCollegiate Program began with one staff member and a handful of students. Since its inception, it has grown into a program with over 400 students and five full-time staff members.

Students are recruited as early as the 7th grade from Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs middle schools. Eligible students must be academically motivated, have a minimum grade point average, and come from a household where neither parent has completed a four-year degree.

Beginning in 7th grade, admitted students are placed into groups of 10-12 and partnered with a volunteer mentor from the community. Mentors follow students from middle school to high school graduation and into college. In their work with students, mentors set an expectation of college attendance and help students design personal goals. Additionally, they support students in developing life skills such as self-advocacy, which are critical in higher education environments.

Also, beginning in 7th grade, the program offers parent classes and support throughout middle and high school. The classes focus on the college application process, the importance of strong study habits, college transition issues, and financial aid planning. These classes help empower parents to support their children on their academic journeys by providing the necessary tools for navigating higher education. 

To help students see themselves as belonging in a college setting, all students attend two, summer academic residential college experiences. After ninth grade, students spend a week at CMC, and before senior year begins, they spend two weeks at CU. These experiences give them a glimpse into what college life might be like and support their eventual transition. 

Roaring Fork School District PreCollegiate Program reports 98-99% of its students move into post-secondary programming after high school. Demand from students and schools continues to grow. It currently serves about 15% of the middle and high population in the schools with the program in place. 

While based in schools, it is truly a product of the community. The program receives 33% of its funding from the school district and relies on philanthropic support (both individual donations and grants) for the remainder. Additionally, the program requires community support for its mentorship model. Mentors make long-term commitments to the program and students and are critical for its success. 

Serving as a mentor changes not only the lives of students and families, but also the mentors. David Smith, executive director of the Roaring Fork PreCollegiate Program, began as volunteer mentor and transitioned to his leadership position a decade ago. During his tenure, the program has seen a 100% high school graduation rate from its participants. 

Looking ahead after twenty years of successful growth and student support, he hopes to continue to grow the alumni network to allow students in the program to connect with others who have been in their position. 

Evidence suggests their educational outcomes improve when first-generation college students have support from a trusted source. When students can  pursue opportunities with confidence, they are better positioned to enter careers that match their abilities and interests. Having community support behind these efforts is critical and advantageous for ensuring a thriving region where every student has access and support in reaching their fullest potential.

Allison Alexander is the Director Strategic Partnerships and Communication at Aspen Community Foundation. ACF with the support of its donors works with a number of non-profits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Throughout the year, we will work to highlight non-profits in the region.