First-generation college students: students whose parents did not complete a four-year college education.
Class: Refers to the income or wealth a person inherits or has
Socioeconomic status: a measure of an individual's or family's economic or social position based on education, income, and occupation.
According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Education, today nearly 50 percent of the college population are first-generation college students - students whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education.
Roughly 24 percent of these - about 4.5 million students - are both first-generation and low-income. While it is important to recognize the significant overlap between first-generation, low-income, and students of color populations, they are not the same. However, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often face similar challenges at universities that reflect middle or upper class norms.
The rise in the number of first-generation students attending college is changing the face of higher education. However, first-generation students enter college with a distinct set of disadvantages, and as such are at a higher risk to drop out, take longer to complete their program, choose careers that they that they are familiar with or end up in employment much below their potential.
Even first-generation students with the exact same academic preparation and performance as their non-first generation peers are still less likely to experience successes in college.
Over the past few years, significant strides have been taken to broaden college access. Led by partnerships between community-based organizations, universities, and the government, the battle to diversify universities has largely taken place in admissions offices across the country. In particular, highly-selective institutions trumpet the percentage of first-generation scholars admitted in their accepted classes every year.
Ivy+ universities offer not only some of the best academics and student support systems in the world, but they also confer students access to opportunities. Historically, these universities have and continue to attract and create leaders in both the private and public sectors. So when first-generation college students that come from disadvantaged communities receive their acceptance letter from these universities, their socioeconomic status rises, while their families, class backgrounds, and communities remain the same.
This experience results in a mismatch between one's socioeconomic status and social class; when your education leads to social mobility, but your culture, family, and upbringing reflect blue-collar values and low socioeconomic status roots, surviving and thriving at your university becomes a distinct challenge than what most of your peers face.
And based on conversations with current students, frustrated newspaper op-eds, and social media movements, first-generation college students often face obstacles that hold many back from immersing themselves in the college experience:
- While at highly-selective institutions, the graduation rates for first-generation college students are near their peers, underclassmen struggle to explore academically, pursue internships and fellowships, or find faculty or administrative mentorship. The hurdles for these students are oftentimes more social and just academic, as they are perceived.
- Campuses often lack strong community supports for first-generation college students--safe spaces where students can explore if and how they feel different, and reflect on their internal changes.
- Universities value codes of communication that are found in middle or upper class homes. For many first-generation college students, college isn't just a transition to a new place, but it's learning a completely new language.
- Peers, professors, and institutional processes reflect middle or upper class norms - this results in the unexpected need for first-gens to adopt new norms, behaviors, and cultures that these institutions require for success - so their peers often start college out swinging when first-gens are just learning how to hold the bat.
- While there are shared experiences between students of the same racial or ethnic background, class and status have a significant role in the adaption to college life that often goes ignored.
Things need to change
Clearly, there's room for improvement at many colleges to ease the transition and continued success for first-generation college students. 1vyG works to bring together students and administrators across the Ivy League to tackle this emerging issue. These universities have both the funds and opportunity to turn into national models for how to best support first-generation college students.