THE ATLANTIC: First-Generation College-Goers: Unprepared and Behind

Career College Central Summary:

  • When Nijay Williams entered college last fall as a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant, he was—despite being admitted to the school—academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Like many first-generation students, he enrolled in a medium-sized state university many of his high school peers were also attending, received a Pell grant, and took out some small federal loans to cover other costs. Given the high price of room and board and the proximity of the school to his family, he opted to live at home and worked between 30 and 40 hours a week while taking a full class schedule.  
  • What Nijay didn’t realize about his school—Tennessee State University—was its frighteningly low graduation rate: a mere 29 percent for its first-generation students. At the end of his first year, Nijay lost his Pell Grant of over $5,000 after narrowly missing the 2.0 GPA cut-off, making it impossible for him to continue paying for school.
  • "I wanted two degrees; that’s what I saw myself doing," he said. "My mom stopped school in the ninth grade; my dad stopped in the fourth grade … It makes it harder for me, [and] most of the people I graduated with are not in college, but that’s what I see myself doing; I want to go to college. I just want to have a degree."
  • "It bothers me every day that I’m not in school—every day," he said. He is currently working multiple jobs and trying to enroll in a community college nearby.
  • Nijay represents a large and growing group of Americans: first-generation college students who enter school unprepared or behind. To make matters worse, these schools are ill-equipped to graduate these students—young adults who face specific challenges and obstacles. They typically carry financial burdens that outweigh those of their peers, are more likely to work while attending school, and often require significant academic remediation.
  • ust 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school. This stems from many issues. Students from low-income backgrounds often attend high schools without rigorous college-prep tracks, meaning their access to good information on higher education may be inadequate. Many of them are also significantly behind academically, which stymies them from applying or being accepted to certain schools. And to make matters worse, thousands of colleges across the country lack resources or programs earmarked for low-income or first generation students. That means that, while many schools enroll these students, few are equipped to actually graduate them.
  • Matt Rubinoff directs I’m First, a nonprofit launched last October to reach out to this specific population of students. He hopes to distribute this information and help prospective college-goers find the best post-secondary fit. And while Rubinoff believes there are a good number of four-year schools that truly care about these students and set aside significant resources and programs for them, he says that number isn’t high enough.
  • "It’s not only the selective and elite institutions that provide those opportunities for a small subset of this population," he said, adding that a majority of first-generation undergraduates tend toward options such as online programs, two-year colleges, and commuter state schools. "Unfortunately, there tends to be a lack of information and support to help students think bigger and broader."
  • Despite this conundrum, many students are still drawn to these institutions—and two-year schools in particular. Anecdotally, as a former high school teacher, I saw students choose familiar, cheaper options year after year. In lieu of skipping out on higher education altogether, they opted for community colleges or state schools with low bars for admittance.

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THE ATLANTIC

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