Being the First College Student in Your Family Isn't a Ticket To Success

March 29th 2015

Kathleen Toohill

College is often referred to as the best four years of your life, but this glib phrase can mask the difficulties that many students, particularly first-generation college students, face when attempting to earn and pay for a degree: only 11 percent of first-generation, low-income college students receive a degree within six years of enrollment. 

This data, provided by a Pell Institute Fact Sheet last updated in 2011, also reports that the degree attainment rate for students who are neither low-income nor first-generation is 54 percent. Both percentages suggest that much remains to be done in terms of preparing and supporting future and current college students. Often, the focus is centered on getting into college—why isn't there the same level of discussion about the challenges that many students face in the pursuit of their degrees?

Challenges faced by first-generation students. 

Many low-income students need to work part or full-time while attending college, which can make it difficult to take a heavy course load. As the length of time in college grows, so does debt. Many students buckle under the pressure of burgeoning debt and frustration over the lack of end dates for their degrees. 

A recent episode of NPR’s radio show This American Life, “Three Miles,” provided a powerful illustration of the difficulties that many low-income and first-generation college students encounter, from financial struggles to feelings of inadequacy to lack of proper academic preparation. 

NPR producer Chana Joffe-Walt spoke to Jonathan Gonzalez, a past recipient of the Posse Scholarship. The Posse Foundation, which started in 1989, provides four-year, full-tuition scholarships on a competitive basis to students in need and boasts a 90% “persistence and graduation rate.” Gonzalez told Joffe-Walt that he initially pictured himself becoming a janitor rather than going to college, and once he arrived on campus, he felt uncomfortable asking for help when he found himself struggling. 

When Gonzalez realized he couldn’t afford textbooks, he decided not to do his work, which created a vicious spiral. Gonzalez told Joffe-Walt, “So now I'm embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn't do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I'm not going to class. It's a catch-22, because now I'm still the black kid now that just doesn't come to class, and doesn't do the work on top of that. But for me, it was-- I mean, what am I going to say to these teachers?” 

An earlier part of the “Three Miles” episode explored the profound feelings of inadequacy and of not belonging that plague many first-generation college students. I’m First, an initiative of the Center for Student Opportunity that aims to support first-generation college students encourages these students to share their struggles and advice with their peers. One video on I’m First’s website features Bernice, a graduate student at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, speaking this month at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference:

“My advice for first-generation students would be to reach out to mentors and look for someone to help you because there are many people that want to see you succeed,” said Bernice in the video, “just as there are many people that expect you to fail.” 

I’m First’s website also features blog posts by both students and staff that offer advice to first-generation students. In one such post, blogger and George Mason University student Carlton Hassell advises his fellow students not to overextend themselves: “One thing, however, that will make graduating impossible is trying to do everything. It’s natural for college students to want to try being involve[d] in any and every activity that’s available at their university.”

Hassell continues, “College is so filled with so many opportunities that it may seem like you will ‘miss out’ if you don’t seize every one of them. But the simple fact still remains: we only have so much time in a day to do a certain amount of things. It then becomes a matter of compromise and sacrifice.”

Failing to seek mentors or help and overcommitting oneself are problems that can often be addressed through support systems on campus. Scholarship programs like Posse provide a wide range of resources for their students, but first-generation students not part of a similar program can usually find resources if they know where to look.

Resources for first-generation students.

Often, the programs that are most successful in making a difference in motivating and preparing low-income students to attend college are the ones that begin as early as elementary or middle school. Mentorship programs like College Mentors for Kids, a program that I participated in while at Notre Dame, pair elementary school students with college-age “buddies.” Mentors in this program build relationships with their buddies while exposing them to various aspects of campus life. 

Programs that prepare and support first-generation students vary from school to school, but to take one example of a state school system, the University of California (UC) system offers a wide array of programs designed to get first-generation students into college and help them stay there. The Preuss School, located on the UC San Diego campus, is a charter middle and high school for low-income students that has been ranked the “top transformative high school in the nation” by Newsweek three years in a row.  Another transformative San Diego school is the Monarch School, which caters to homeless youth. You can watch ATTN:’s video about the Monarch School below:

See How This School Is Breaking the Cycle for Homeless Youth

See How This School Is Breaking the Cycle for Homeless Youth

Posted by ATTN: on Thursday, March 26, 2015

The University of California system’s Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP) serves 150 K-12 public schools in California and assists these students with academic preparation. According to EAOP’s website, 66 percent of EAOP students go directly to college after graduation. Of graduation rates, the website says, “The persistence rates of EAOP alumni at UC are equal to or better than their campus counterparts who did not participate in EAOP.”

Other programs aimed at reducing the achievement gap and helping first-generation students succeed include QuestBridge, which provides students with College Prep Scholarships and helps match high school students to 35 partner colleges, often with scholarships. Summer bridge programs, like UCSD’s OASIS Summer Bridge Program, help ease first-generation students into the college experience and provide a multitude of on-campus resources for them. 

AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, began in San Diego thirty years ago and has since expanded nationally. AVID’s mission, according to its website, is to bring “research-based curriculum and strategies to students each day that develop critical thinking, literacy, and math skills across all content areas.” AVID programs begin as early as kindergarten and target the academic middle in an attempt to close the achievement gap. 

Closing the achievement gap and raising the percentage of first-generation students that graduate from college should be goals not only for educators, but also of our political leaders and society at large. We have more of a chance of reaching our potential as a generation, and as a nation, if we empower and motivate all students to succeed in higher education.  

A blog post from Azareah in Atlanta on I’m First's website reminds other first-generation students that despite the challenges and uncertainty that college may entail, getting accepted into college and ultimately earning a degree is an achievement that both students and their parents can take pride in: “Even though my mom doesn't pressure me to go to college she supports my decision 100%!” Azareah writes. “Watching her do everything within her power to make my life better pushed me to desire to be great! Earning my degree will not only be one accomplishment that I can be proud of but it serves as a badge of honor for my mom too. My degree will show her that her hard work has paid off.”