Best Practices for Serving FGLI Students

Over the past fifteen years, Harvard College has welcomed increasing numbers of first-generation and/or low-income college students.  As of the 2018-19 academic year:

  • Over 15% of Harvard College students are first generation college students, which means that they are in the first generation of their family to attain a four-year college degree.
  • Harvard admission is need-blind and financial aid is entirely need-based.
  • About 55% of Harvard College students receive need-based financial aid.
  • Approximately 20% of Harvard College students come from families making less than $65,000 per year.  Their families pay nothing for their children to attend.
  • As part of their need-based aid packages, students are expected to work 10-12 hours per week during the academic year to meet the term-time work expectation, which usually ranges from $3,000-3,500 per year.
  • About 77-79% of undergrads work term-time at some point during their four years at the College.
  • Please also visit the Harvard College Griffin Financial Aid Office for more information about financial aid.

This page provides guidance for faculty to ensure that Harvard classrooms and concentrations are a space for first-generation and low-income students to thrive. Moreover, the practices recommended here will support the success of all students, regardless of background.

Click on each category below to learn more about our recommendations for inclusive practices.

Course Materials and Financial Considerations

Course materials can be very expensive, presenting a significant barrier to students’ academic success. While financial aid factors in the cost of course materials, students do not necessarily have funds at the start of each semester to meet these expenses. Students perceive some concentrations as “costing more” than others, which may affect students’ decisions to enroll in a specific course or choose a concentration. Think about ways to mitigate the financial burden on students when crafting your syllabus.

1. Don’t assume students have immediate funds to purchase textbooks (used or new), or that they have access to credit cards, Amazon Prime, etc. to make quick online purchases.

  • Similarly, don’t assume that students have money for other course expenditures, such as field trips or supplies for creative projects. Your department or the Office of Undergraduate Education may have funding that can defray these types of expenses.

2. Ask if it is necessary for students to purchase the most recent edition of a textbook. If it is possible for students to work with older editions, provide page numbers and section titles for multiple editions when designing assignments and syllabi.

  • Try to make use of open, free digital resources, such as OpenStax textbooks and the many media and resources freely available on OER Commons.

3. Make course readings as accessible as possible:

  • When possible, upload course readings to Canvas at the beginning of the semester; remind students that they are available.
  • Use the library reserve system, and let students know which library has copies of course texts on reserve. In addition to placing multiple copies of books on reserve, ask whether your department can set up a lending library (possibly from faculty desk copies).
  • Make students aware of borrowing resources such as Borrow Direct in HOLLIS and the Cambridge Public Library Minuteman system.
  • Let students know that PDFs of articles are often available online through HOLLIS.

4. Be cognizant of costs associated with software or online resources.

  • If students are required to use software for your course, consult with Academic Technology. FAS has licenses for a variety of software packages, and in some cases, may be able to obtain a license. Alternatively, Academic Technology may be able to recommend no-cost alternatives, or software that is already available on Harvard computers.
  • Some textbooks have accompanying online resources with electronic access codes that cannot be shared among multiple users. Determine whether or not these online resources are necessary for your course before requiring students to pay for access. Inquire if there are departmental funds to help cover the cost.

5. Harvard students do not have access to free printing. Printing costs add up and can become expensive. As of Spring 2019, students were charged 5 cents/side for B&W single-sided, 3 cents/side for B&W double sided, 15 cents/side for color single-sided, and 8 cents/side for color double-sided printing. This means that in a twelve-week course with 100 pages/week of reading, printing the readings in black and white would cost $36.

  • Allow students to submit papers electronically. Consider allowing students to use laptops or providing them with hard copies if you want them to have access to readings during class.

6. If your course requires students to view films outside of class, keep in mind that most students’ computers can’t play DVDs, which means they will need to view the entirety of a film at the library (and will need to find a time when other people are not already viewing it). Consider arranging group viewing sessions at the library. Do not assume that all students have access to streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon.

7. The high cost of printing and binding multiple copies of a senior thesis can present a significant financial burden on students. Many concentrations now allow students to submit their theses electronically. If your concentration does not provide this option, look into whether there are departmental funds to pay for paper and binders, and make sure students know about this resource before they decide whether or not to write a thesis.

Logistics and Scheduling

Many students have work, family, and personal commitments with schedules that are not entirely under their control. The details of how a course is planned and executed can have a significant impact on students’ day to day lives and sense of belonging.

1. Ambiguous and shifting deadlines and/or timing of course-related activities make it difficult for students with work schedules to plan ahead. Be sure that all course deadlines, as well as times for any outside events, are clearly stated on your syllabus at the beginning of the semester.

  • Be clear about your expectations for attendance at outside events, lectures, film screenings, exhibits, etc. If possible, consider giving students a “menu” of events, allowing them to choose from among several options those which work best with their schedule.
  • Make it clear on the syllabus whether or not students will need to be on campus during reading period and final exams. Changing travel plans can be expensive.
  • Set your section times as early in the semester as possible and post them clearly on your syllabus and Canvas site. This enables students to make informed decisions about scheduling.

2. Many students don’t have the resources to purchase food or eat at area restaurants, making it difficult for them to attend classes, meetings, or events that are held during dining hall hours.

  • If your class time meeting block overlaps with dining hall meal times (e.g. 12–2:45pm; 5-7:15), consider starting late to allow students to get their meal from the dining hall.
  • Let students bring food to class if it is allowed in your building.
  • Don’t ask students to buy snacks for end of the semester parties, etc.

3. Students have varying degrees of experience with asking for extensions. Be clear about your extension policy and what information you need in order to grant extensions. A course's entire teaching team should honor this policy consistently so that students are spared feeling as if they have to share personal information in order to receive extensions. Consider allowing a universal number of “extension days” that students can use as needed without explanation and/or allowing every student to “drop” a low-stakes assignment (e.g., a weekly problem set or response paper).

4. If appropriate for your course, consider recording lectures and making them available to students outside of class. Students may need to miss class for an emergency or last-minute work conflict. NB: If you are concerned about students choosing to view recorded lectures rather than attending class, there are ways to moderate access to recorded lectures.

Classroom Culture and Environment

As with many elite institutions of higher education, Harvard has what researchers call a “hidden curriculum,” a set of unspoken academic and cultural norms that are assumed to be common knowledge. There are many ways that faculty can create a supportive and welcoming classroom culture by rendering these hidden norms explicit and transparent.

1. All students will benefit from a course description and syllabus that is inviting, legible, and accessible. Where possible, avoid using specialized academic jargon in course descriptions.

2. Be explicit on the syllabus and in discussions about how to succeed in the course:

  • How should students prepare for each class and section? What should they do after each class?
  • How do you recommend that students approach the readings? By when do readings need to be completed?
  • What does mastery look like for different types of assignments or exams? How should students prepare for exams? Rubrics are a particularly powerful way of providing students with the means to evaluate their own progress through an assignment.
  • Are students expected to work alone or collaboratively on particular assignments?
  • What do you expect students to do during class? Provide guidance on good note-taking skills, and direct students to College resources on note-taking.
  • Talk about effective study habits.

3. Make explicit all expectations for specific assignments (e.g., provide guidance on how to write a response paper), and, if applicable, consider sharing examples of successful student work (with prior students’ permission). Keep in mind that students may feel uncomfortable asking for guidance on unfamiliar assignments—e.g., how long a post on the course site should be, if it can be written in the first person, etc.

4. Clearly explain your expectations for office hours (where they are, how often they take place, and what kinds of things you might talk about). Let students know if you want them to sign up online, or whether it is fine to drop by unannounced. Explain in class and on the syllabus that students do not have to “prepare” anything ahead of time, and invite them to visit you at various points over the course of a semester. Consider requiring all students to visit you briefly during the first few weeks of class.

  • Let students know that if they are not available during your office hours, you can arrange another time to meet.

5. Students’ comfort speaking up in class varies widely. Students who attended preparatory and well-resourced high schools often have more familiarity with discussion-based seminar and section formats. Let students know what counts as participation. Encourage students to share ideas even if they are in the process of formulating them. Keep in mind that students who are not speaking may still be very engaged and paying close attention. Let students know that they can meet with you in office hours for help speaking in class.

  • Provide opportunities for students to participate in multiple ways, which might include online discussion board postings, in-class written responses, or small group work. Help students build confidence through “warm calling” (i.e, letting students know ahead of time that you will ask them to share their ideas). Visit our tip sheet for ideas on facilitating discussion and engagement.
  • Understand that cold calling is especially hard on students who are less comfortable speaking.
  • Engage students in setting community agreements about participation, speaking, and communication, and revisit them periodically to discuss and revise.

4. Emphasize that asking for help is an expected part of the college experience for all students.

  • Encourage students to work with tutors, attend review sessions, and ask questions of teaching staff. Let students know that you are there to support them.
  • Share stories--either your own or others’--about encountering academic challenges.
  • Ask for “muddiest point” feedback at the end of class, out loud or in the form of individual exit notes. This lets students know that it is normal to find a least one concept confusing, and can encourage them to seek clarification.
  • To encourage reflection, consider asking students to attach a cover letter to assignments explaining what they learned from feedback on prior assignments.

5. Make as few assumptions as possible about students’ background and access to resources.

  • In small talk/casual conversation, do not assume that a student’s parents attended college, and don’t ask what a student’s parents do for work. Ask open-ended questions such as, “How is life outside of class?”
  • Employ ice breakers that don’t flag class status. (e.g., Don’t ask where students went for summer vacation, or for the name of their favorite restaurant).
  • Normalize staying on campus for breaks. (Ask “Are you staying around for break?” rather than, “Are you going anywhere exciting?”)

6. Note that some readings, topics, and assignments might call attention to economic status:

  • Intervene in discussions when students hold up middle-class identity as the default or norm, or as a basis for shared experience.
  • Pay attention to the examples used as illustrations in the texts you assign and in your lectures. Do they reflect and normalize a range of economic status and class experience? Are you inadvertently assuming things about students’ backgrounds when you attempt to make your material relatable?
  • Use respectful language when speaking about economic status. Avoid using terms such as “unskilled labor” or “illegal aliens.” If they appear in a text, contextualize and discuss their histories and implications.
  • Know that certain activities, such as an outing to a theater, museum, or dinner, will put students in highly “classed” spaces.

7. Study group formation is a context during which social dynamics and inequalities are often highlighted and exacerbated. Students often gravitate toward those with whom they already feel an affinity, and Final Clubs and other social organizations often have shared archives of study materials. Provide guidance on how to form and work in study groups. (See the Bok website for more information about group work.)

Beyond the Classroom: Mentoring, Advising, and Community

Research literature has repeatedly demonstrated that mentorship from faculty and peers is invaluable in decoding the culture (or “hidden curriculum”) of higher education, and helping students envision academic success.

1. Get to know your students as individuals. Create opportunities for students to engage in informal conversation with you before or after class.

2. Students benefit from learning about the educational and career paths of faculty and peers. Create moments in the classroom where you share your own experiences or invite colleagues to do so.

3. Communicate with students about the potential you see in their work, including possibilities for ongoing study in the field (e.g., internships, research assistantships, and graduate school). Discuss with them the next steps along such a path would be, and direct them to resources such as the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and the Office of Career Services.

4. Concentrations can also find ways to mentor students and build an intellectual community. Create opportunities for informal conversation and interactions between faculty and students, perhaps in the form of an open house or afternoon snack break.

  • Create inviting spaces (e.g, a lounge area) for students in the concentration.
  • Formalize peer advising structures, and provide training for the peer advisors. Consider listing contact info for undergraduate peer advisers as well as graduate students on your website.

5. Offer ways to build community and get regular student input on improving the concentration experience. This could take the form of a student committee or town hall. Make sure that recruitment for such a committee is broad and open.

Campus Resources

Students are often unaware of the many campus resources available for academic support. Faculty should reassure students that they can seek help not only when they are “in crisis,” but also when facing everyday difficulties.

1. Be proactive when students aren’t showing up to your class, or aren’t doing well.

  • Invite the student to talk to you in person. Lead with strategizing for the student’s success in your course.
  • If you are not able to reach the student, email their Resident Dean, who can check on their well-being and make sure they are in contact with house tutors and other resources. (Visit the following websites for lists of Resident Deans for first year students and for the House Deans.)

2. List resources on your syllabus and Canvas site, such as the Academic Resource Center, the Writing Center, and Counseling and Mental Health Services. The Bok Center offers a concise guide to campus resources.

3. Let students know about the many library services for citations and research. Point students toward their concentration’s Library Liaison.

Background on the Creation of this Resource

AY-2018-2019, the Bok Center convened an Exploratory Seminar to discuss ways in which faculty can make their courses welcoming to first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students. Rather than thinking about how to “acclimatize” students to the specific culture of Harvard, the seminar asked how Harvard can transform its own pedagogical culture to foster a better learning environment for all students, in keeping with the recommendations set forth in the Spring 2018 report from the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging.

Bok Center Faculty Fellow Linda Schlossberg and Bok Center Executive Director Tamara Brenner led the seminar, with the goal of creating a list of effective practices for faculty and administrators, to support not only first generation and low-income students, but all Harvard undergraduates. This document is based on discussions with the 30 faculty members and administrators who attended the Exploratory Seminar, conversations with Harvard undergraduates, and findings from established literature in the field. 

Suggested Readings

Harvard's Next Gen Initiative features guidance for instructors on "Advising and Mentoring," "Teaching for Student Success," and "Actionable Interventions."

Center for First-generation Student Success. [Online].

Crow, M.M., Drake, M.V., Burns, B., Winrow, S., et al. (2017) Q&A: First-Generation Students. [Online]. 2 June 2017. The New York Times.

Dika, S.L. & Damico, M.M. (2015) Early experiences and integration in the persistence of first-generation college students in STEM and non-STEM majors. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. [Online] 53 (3), 368–383.

Homol, C.J. & Johns, D.J. (2016) 5 Things You Can Do to Support First-Generation College Students. [Online]. 15 July 2016. Education Post.

Teresa Heinz Housel & Vickie L Harvey (eds.) (2009) The invisibility factor: administrators and faculty reach out to first-generation college students. Boca Raton, BrownWalker Press.

Jack, A.A. (2019) The privileged poor: how elite colleges are failing disadvantaged students. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Jehangir, R.R. (2010) Higher education and first-generation students: cultivating community, voice, and place for the new majority. [Online]. New York, Palgrave Macmillan. 

Kuriakose, D. (2013) Stories of first-generation students: 'I felt dumb, poor and confused'. [Online]. 20 September 2013. The Guardian.

Nadworny, E. & Marcus, J. (2018) 'Going To Office Hours Is Terrifying' And Other Tales Of Rural Students In College. [Online]. 12 December 2018. NPR.

O’Neal, C.R., Espino, M.M., Goldthrite, A., Morin, M.F., et al. (2016) Grit under duress: Stress, strengths, and academic success among non-citizen and citizen Latina/o first-generation college students. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. [Online] 38 (4), 446–466.

Smith, A.A. (2018) First-Generation College Students More Engaged Than Peers. [Online]. 26 June 2018. Inside Higher Ed.

Smith, C. (2019) Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong. [Online]. 19 March 2019. The Atlantic.

Stephens, N.M., Fryberg, S.A., Marcus, H.R., Johnson, C.S., et al. (2012) Unseen disadvantage: How the taken-for-granted university culture of independence undermines first-generation college students. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. [Online] 102 (6), 1178–1197.

Ward, L., Siegel, M.J. & Davenport, Z. (2012) First-generation college students: Understanding and improving the experience from recruitment to commencement. [Online]. Jossey-Bass, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.