Beating the Odds: Finding Success as a First-Generation College Student

By Sean Nyhan

First-Generation StudentsA college education might be the American dream, but if you’re a first-generation student it’s time to wake up. Acceptance to college is only the first step on your journey to realizing a degree.

Reading that glorious letter affirming your entrance into next year’s freshman class might feel like the opportunity you’ve been waiting for your entire life; and rightfully so. But after you celebrate, consider the unfortunate statistics that persist among your first-generation peers.

Studying the 10-year academic trajectories of students from sophomore year of high school moving  forward, the Department of Education (DOE) found that around 20 percent of first-generation college students had obtained a bachelor’s degree within a decade, compared with 42 percent of continuing generation students — a term researchers used to describe students with at least one parent who had attended college.

Students drop out of college for many reasons: an overwhelming financial burden, a family emergency, stress, illness, or just plain lack of interest. And while it might seem like tuition would be their biggest barrier, first-generation students are only 10 percent more likely than continuing-generation students to report financial issues as their reason for falling off the college track.

Then why are first-generation students so much more vulnerable?

First of all, before you panic, know that you are just as prepared academically as your peers. There is no evidence that points to academic ability as the cause for lower graduation rates among first-generation students. In fact, most of the pitfalls ahead are avoidable.

Angela Conley manages the program known as EMERGE, a group within the Houston Independent School District that connects students from underserved backgrounds with colleges and universities. Aside from financial concerns, Conley most often hears two dominant fears from first-generation students: “Will I fit in with students from the middle and upper classes?” and “How do I best prepare so that I don’t fail?”

“Many are intellectually ready for the coursework, but flummoxed by the social wherewithal,” Conley says. “Many of my former advisees are intimidated more by the social scene.”

For students representing the first in their families to attend college, the ability to adjust to very different social circles can mean the difference between graduating and dropping out. Furthermore, while first-generation students have always faced uphill battles, Conley named several issues unique to today’s academic environment. There is, of course, the behemoth that is social media, which can intimidate as much as it connects. Bullying, shaming, and a generally combative atmosphere are all too commonly reported on social media channels. And, of course, today’s divisive political climate doesn’t make things any easier. Conley’s students worry about very real threats like on-campus hate groups and the horror and frequency of campus shootings.

All students worry about one or more of these issues at any given time. For first-generation students, though, these anxieties can loom larger, like an allergy that affects some members of the population more than others. As a means to cope with uncertainty, Conley strongly encourages first-generation students to immerse themselves in simulated college experiences, like competitive summer prep and bridge programs and visits to campuses that include overnight stays in real dorm rooms.

Conley also recommends exposure to a healthy diet of diverse books, articles, and other accounts outside of your own bubble. This, she says, will help “students build both collegiate grammar and vocabulary, as well as a sensibility of other global realities beyond their primarily American experiences.”

Through this exposure, both in person and via secondhand narratives, you can feel more comfortable about college, even if you’re venturing into new territory. And don’t fret; you’re not alone. Here are some great resources to help you prepare for the reality of college:

•    I’m First! — an online community supporting first-generation students
•    FastWeb’s Field Guide for First-Generation College Students — tips for navigating the college admission process
•    College websites — many campuses provide unique on-campus resources for first-generation students.