Posts

#42 – The College Gap for First-Generation Students

In three short weeks, incoming freshmen students will flood college campuses across the country to embark on their post-secondary school journey. Many students may initially encounter academic challenges and personal challenges, but students from college-educated families can connect with an immediate family member who can share their personal experience with similar struggles. 

First-Generation college-bound students will not have a direct college link found within their families. The unique college difficulties faced by first-generation students can be understood by peers or trusted adults, but many students will feel the initial disconnection that displacement from family and community can cause upon arrival to college.     

The barriers abound that first-generation students face on the road to college. High needs schools will have few college resources that students can access to assist in their college application process. Counselors have overwhelming caseloads with at least three hundred students that college application assistance may only take place during the student’s designated senior meeting. Teachers can offer to review essay materials or discuss college options, but those discussions occur only outside class time and may not be sufficient time for a student to discuss where to spend four years of study after high school. 

With few readily available family or school resources, first-generation students must rely on college preparation programs, mentorships, community involvement, and active trusted adults to bridge the knowledge and social gap that college can present.      

Nonprofits dedicated to assist, advance, and amplify post-secondary opportunities for first-generation students dramatically alter the life trajectories for those students. For instance, the national nonprofit Questbridge develops programs for low-income students to access enriched experiences and opportunities at the nation’s most elite institutions. Questbridge cites that approximately 30,000 talented low-income students from across the country are academically qualified to reach a highly selective college, but the majority of those students will not apply to even one selective college or university. Low-income students may lack knowledge on how to navigate the labyrinthian system that the college application process entails and without trusted adults to aid in the process, many students will not reach college.          

First-generation students can struggle in different school environments. In my affluent public school in Maryland, our graduation rate soars high and everyone has post-secondary plans. My school was replete with college readiness resources. Students could speak with numerous counselors and a designated college and career counselor. The counselor had fanciful formulas that determined the likelihood of admission based on previous data. We could also attend college information sessions and saw countless flyers on SAT tutors available to boost one’s score at least 200 points. The problem arose on what my friends and peers did beyond the school day. Parents understood inherently the fierce competitiveness of entrance to any highly selective college and the process begins long before senior year.    

Parents encouraged their children to fill their resume with internships, music expertise, and sports accolades almost from the time that their school career began. In the fall or spring break preceding senior year, an epic college tour began that could span the eastern seaboard or go as far as California to see what would be the best college fit. In senior year, endless parents hired a private college counselor who served as the sole evaluator of the college application items for a student before submission. The counselor would critique every possible essay and offer any competitive advantage for the student so they could reach their elite institution of choice. 

In high school, I did not comprehend how the thousands and thousands of dollars parents spent on the college application process further perpetuates income, school, and social inequities that exist between high-income and low-income students. I could only observe in wonder at the lengths families will go to assure their child’s future, and hope that my work with my most trusted and favorite English teacher would suffice in the college gauntlet.  

Income does not dictate how fiercely a family cares for their child. Fewer resources indicate that a student will need more communal support to supersede the barriers that bar them from pursuing a post-secondary plan.   

In Bethesda, Maryland, Collegiate Directions serves approximately 210 students to bolster their future college-bound plans. Collegiate Directions supports students from tenth-grade through college with mentoring, tutoring, counseling, and family support over six years. The Scholars Program maintains partnerships with high schools and community programs, connection with colleges, and offers support to students and families with extensive resources and guidance. In the 2019 CDI Factbook, program data includes: 97% of CDI students graduate college within six years, students receive a 24.5 average ACT score after test prep with CDI, and 236 CDI scholars were accepted to more than 236 highly selective colleges and universities across the U.S.    

In Charlotte, Carolina Youth Coalition focuses their initiatives and programs on high school juniors and seniors. Carolina Youth Coalition prepares high-achieving, under-served high school students in their college application process that can begin their freshmen year. Grade-level specific programs can vary from: academic habits, college exploration, ACT prep, college tours, financial aid sessions, and more direct college support as the fellow progresses in the program. Fellows also receive a personal college mentor who will be their dedicated trusted adult during the complex college application process. Carolina Youth Coalition had tremendous success with the first class of Fellows. Fellows represented twelve different CMS high schools with 100% of Fellows accepted to a four-year college. In total, Fellows earned $5.6 million in grant-aid earned with 67% of Fellows attending college completely debt-free. Carolina Youth Coalition will serve more students as the cohort will span from 40 Fellows in eleventh-twelfth grade to 70 Fellows in tenth-twelfth grade. Matriculated college Fellows will also engage in a College Persistence Program to overcome the unique obstacles that many First-Generation students feel once they begin their post-secondary plans.  

College preparation programs serve as critical communal supports that first-generation students can access to reach their post-secondary plans. Beyond the actual admission and matriculation to college, college preparation programs serve a vital function to fortify the social and emotional health of participants to ensure they overcome the college hardships they will endure. Carolina Youth Coalition cites that only one in four low-income students who enroll in college will graduate. The more opportunities low-income students can have to build the necessary competencies to navigate complex systems and overcome academic hurdles then the greater likelihood for their success in college and a career.  

In mid-August, first-generation students begin the second phase to actualize their ambitions and aspirations. The community support they may have felt during a robust and impassioned program should not stop at their college gate. More students need to feel a chance to call a trusted adult once the struggles on campus begin and to know that they have the mental and emotional capacity to overcome the present barriers.      

More to do. More to come.

Ana Cunningham

Director of Projects, SchermCo

To learn more about SchermCo or inquire about our services, please email Ana Cunningham, ana@scherm.co. Lastly, follow our journey and engage with us on our social media platforms: FB, IG, and Twitter.

SchermCo is a social-impact implementation firm that offers strategic advising, organizational development, and implementation services to schools and education-focused organizations. SchermCo reinvests 1% of their time/funds from each project back into the communities they serve