Politics, Moderate



First-generation college students face steeper climb to graduation

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- There are a few key milestones in the first semester of a college freshman's life: the first few days away, especially if they're on a far-off campus; the first big paper to write; the first big exam. Teary calls home or anguished texts may come in the night, along with family and friends' reassurances that all will be well.

Then there's the Thanksgiving breakdown. If it comes, this one is bad.

The student who left to great fanfare for a near-magical life journey at their dream school returns home to a hero's welcome at family gatherings. Practically everywhere they go someone is asking them how classes are going, whether they like their professors, what their major is.

It's a ton of pressure -- especially if things aren't going well. And then, if the student feels confident enough in their support system to be open, the tears come.

Desperation finally reveals itself, and the truth comes tumbling out: Classes are way harder than they were in high school, the professors are too tough on students, the first tests were impenetrable, and their final papers loom like seemingly insurmountable tasks.

These are just your standard, high-achieving kids who were always expected to go to college because their moms and dads, and maybe other family members, attended a university. For these students, this is probably just a natural bump in the road.


For a first-generation college student -- the first in his or her family to attend college -- it could be a devastating roadblock that presages an eventual drop-out.

In fact, a full third of first-generation college students who were on track to graduate with a degree during the 2003-04 academic year left their studies and didn't return to school within three years, according to the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

There are so many reasons for this: financial-aid woes (despite many superstar first-generation students being people of color, they don't all get full rides or tons of scholarships) and problems fitting in to affluent campus cultures.

But the biggest issue has to be that students of color who achieve great academic success in high school are oftentimes unaware that their community schools left them woefully unprepared for math classes like calculus (sometimes even if they took it in high school), or for building and defending a point-of-view in writing.


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