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Colleges have significantly increased the numbers of first generation (FG) students who apply and enroll. As colleges expand this access, there must also be a focus on FG students’ success, especially when it comes to helping them remain in college and complete their degree.

FG parents and family members are one of our most valuable and important resources for their student’s success. Previous assumptions questioned if FG parents could provide guidance and support for their college student (since they had limited or no experience with college). Quite the opposite is true! In fact, it is often the case that FG parents and families are one of, if not the greatest influencer in their student’s success!

Those us of who have witnessed first-hand the tremendous insights, wisdom, and unwavering support FG families pass along to their student, know the importance of actively including them as central part of the college experience. Engaging our FG families, however, begins with work that helps them similarly decode the college environment.

Sometimes, the very best information that can be shared, (and seems like a pretty good starting point), is to get on the same page about our language. As the cliché states… language is power. Once you begin to learn the language of a culture, not only do you feel like less of an outsider, but you become even better at helping others navigate that culture—in this case, our students.

FG parents and family members—what’s a practical and doable step to help your student succeed? Learn, adopt, and use the language of the college culture for yourself and with your student. Below is an introductory list of terms that you may have heard in passing, already know/actively use, or may be completely alien to you. Whatever your experience with these words and terms, consider this a getting started list that will lead to more words, and more terms, and more phrases, and limitless opportunities to directly share in the college experience with your student. You are essential to their success!

  • Academic Advisor (Advisor): a college staff member (often a faculty member in the student’s major) who provides guidance and support about their academic program, courses, professional interests, and overall development in college.
  • Academic Standing: college categories that reflect how well a student is doing academically; specific categories include “good standing” (at or above the college’s established academic standard), “warning/probation” (falling below or in jeopardy of not meeting an academic standard during a specified time), “dismissal” (repeatedly falling below the standard, resulting in removal from the college for a period of time).
  • Bursar (Student Accounts): the department on campus that assists students and families with bill payment, and payment options, and can explain the different elements that make up the total cost of attending that college. Note: the Bursar’s Office/Student Accounts differ from the Financial Aid department.
  • Chair (Department Chair): the director of an academic department.
  • Credit (Credit hour): the unit of measurement that gets assigned to each course. A single course is often 3 or 4 credits (e.g. “Introduction to Essay Writing” is 3 credits; 5 courses at 3 credits each is 15 credits). The number of credits is used to track a student’s progress towards completing their degree (e.g. 120 total credits may be needed to graduate).
  • Curriculum: an outlined set of courses/classes that determine a student’s major, minor, program, etc.
  • Dean: a college administrator responsible for a particular area.
  • Degree audit: a progress report that shows how students are tracking towards their degree overall and completing the requirements for their major/minor.
  • Faculty: college employees primarily responsible for teaching, supporting students, and providing other services to the college.
  • Financial Aid/Financial Aid Office: financial support to assist students while in college. Financial aid comes from a variety of sources, such as the federal/state government, private businesses, donors, college scholarships, churches, community agencies, and so on. The office provides strategies for how students can locate resources to support their college experience.
  • Full Load: a minimum of 12 credits (for undergraduate students) that makes them full-time students.
  • General Education Courses (Gen Ed): foundational, introductory (often required courses) that are common across students, regardless of their major. These courses often assist students in selecting and/or refining their academic major.
  • Major: students’ primary area of academic focus/study.
  • Minor: student’s secondary or supporting area of academic focus/study.
  • Registrar: a college staff member who in part, manages campus policies and practices in support of students’ academic records, students’ registration and enrollment, their progress towards degree completion, and their academic standing.
  • Student Affairs/Student Life: campus department that supports students’ academic, career, and overall development ensuring they are engaged and connected in/outside the classroom.


Michelle is Vice President For Student Success at Credo and partners with colleges to foster student achievement. Michelle’s background encompasses academic/student affairs, diversity and inclusion, and college administration across a variety of higher education settings. She earned her B.A. and M.Ed. from the University of Virginia and Ed.D. from Northeastern University.