Level the Playing Field for First-Gen College Students

Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Steve Desir

As a first-generation college graduate, the success of first-generation college students is a personal priority.  With #CelebrateFirstGen trending on social media last week as part the First-Generation College Celebration, I began to think about the important role that policymakers and institutional leaders often play in creating opportunities that will change the lives of first-generation students and their families. K-12 and higher education must work together to level the playing field for first-generation students to find postsecondary success.

While high school graduation rates are at an all-time high, there are still significant gaps in the preparation, enrollment, and college graduation rates for first-generation college-goers in comparison to their peers. Approximately one-third of all undergraduate students are the first in their families to go to college. According to research from National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) only:

  • 18% of first-generation high school students earned AP/IB credits prior to enrolling in college in comparison to 44% of students whose parents earned a bachelor’s degrees;
  • 72% of first-generation students enrolled in college in the months immediately following high school in comparison to 93% of students whose parents earned bachelor’s degrees;
  • 33 % of first-generation college students left their degree programs without earning a credential in comparison to 14% of students whose parents earned bachelor’s degrees; and
  • 56% of first-generation college students earned a degree within 6 years of beginning their program in comparison to 74% of students whose parents earned bachelor’s degrees.

Higher education is the path to economic opportunity and this especially true for first-generation students. Policymakers and institutional leaders can play a significant role in providing first-generation college students with the tools they need to enroll and succeed in college. Throughout the nation, there are cities, states, and institutions that are providing the roadmap for how we can all work together to dramatically increase the number of first-generation students who are prepared for and succeed in higher education.

Policymakers and institutional leaders can level the playing field for first-generation college students by adopting policies that will:

  • Ensure first-generation high school graduates have the appropriate navigational supports. This can be accomplished by developing state-wide resources that assist students in completing the steps necessary to successfully enroll in college. Indiana’s Scholar Success Program  and Delaware’s College Scholars Program both include a series of activities designed to ensure students are on track for college and career success.
  • Incentivize colleges and universities to ensure first-generation college students are successful. This can be accomplished by including first-generation college students in state performance-based funding formulas.
  • Ensure that a college education is affordable. Institutional leaders at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois have developed free tuition programs to signal to students that a college education is affordable and accessible.
  • Support high school students in the college application and match process. Programs like Idaho’s Direct Admissions, Apply Yourself Florida , and the College Board’s College Kickoff Mailing are all designed to provide students with the navigational supports necessary to successfully enroll in a college that meets their academic performance.
  • Provide high-quality speed up and catch up opportunities for students. High-quality early postsecondary opportunities can allow first-generation students who are ready for college-level coursework to “speed up”  their learning and develop their career interest. States should also provide struggling students with an opportunity “catch up” and fill gaps in their learning with transition courses in 12th grade. CUNY’s LINCT and Tennessee SAILS are model programs that provide college exposure and have helped countless first-generation college students prepare for the rigors of college.

In my previous roles in higher education and in K-12 schools, I was responsible for ensuring that first-generation students had the tools necessary to be successful in pursuing their academic and career interest. This work with individual students was incredibly meaningful and rewarding, and helped me see how much more could be done structurally to scale supports so that significantly more first-generation students find success.

I hope that you will join me and my colleagues at ESG in extending the celebration of first-generation college goers. And join us in going beyond celebration. We must work collaboratively across sectors to expand policies and programs that facilitate the success of first-generation college students. Let’s make sure we are supporting and celebrating all students’ postsecondary success on the same playing field.