Skip to content Skip to footer
The Impossible Dream for Most First-Generation College Students
(Image: College graduates via Shutterstock)

The Impossible Dream for Most First-Generation College Students

(Image: College graduates via Shutterstock)

During the past 60 years, college attendance in the United States has more than tripled. This increase has been driven by society’s need for technically trained students, by the need for credentialing to establish competencies, and by government action providing easier school financing. Assuming the parameters of a normal distribution curve, this attendance increase necessitates the acceptance of “marginal students,” many of whom are the first in their families to attempt a college education. To succeed, these students require a closer bond with their school, in the form of specialized instruction and intensive guidance.

Unfortunately, many nonprofit schools do not provide this bond. Instead, they accept students’ tuition and pay scant attention to graduation rates. As student advocates for more than three decades, we object when colleges try to balance their budgets by engaging in practices we regard as unethical. Many schools bottom lines prosper by accepting “marginal” students who qualify for loans and government-backed financial aid, but their curriculum does not provide these students with the services and programs they need to achieve success. Too many low-income students who are often first-generation students find themselves gamed when they meet with admissions counselors who help them to complete loan applications but neglect to explain the difference between being accepted to college and graduating from college – and the subsequent need for students to repay college loans even if they never earn a diploma.

We believe these schools are more concerned with tuition payments than students’ welfare and learning. Many first-generation students who need academic support cannot handle college requirements and drop out, saddled with debt. This situation is reprehensible. Admissions counselors are well aware of the 4-and 6-year graduation rates of their schools, and we believe they have a professional and moral obligation to reveal this information to potential students. They should also indicate evidenced-based programs and services, if any, that are available for students and that have resulted in higher graduation rates of students at risk of dropping out. Regrettably, this type of transparency does not exist on many campuses.

Let’s look at some statistics. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, some colleges have graduation rates below 30 percent, and some are even below 10 percent. New York’s Long Island University, for example, has a 4-year graduation rate of 21.7 percent at its Post Campus, and an 8 percent graduation rate at its Brooklyn Campus. Similarly, New York’s Mercy College has a low graduation rate of 22.9 percent. The New York State average, however, is 55.1 percent for 4-year private, not-for-profit colleges. These statistics can be catastrophic for first-generation students because whether they graduate or not, they still have loans that must be paid. We advocate that students avoid schools with graduation rates that are significantly below their state’s average. These low rates suggest that college administrators take students’ money with the unashamed awareness that most of these students will not graduate, and many of them will not complete their first two years successfully.

We believe this problem is exacerbated by the “shell game” many college administrators play, in which they use Pell Grants to supplant institutional aid that they would otherwise have provided to financially needy students. These administrators then shift the funds to recruit more advantaged students, offering them generous scholarships. Using poorer students’ Pell Grants as a source of supporting more advantaged students is an unscrupulous practice that further undermines low-income students’ efforts to complete their college education. Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation, notes that this is one of the reasons low-income students continue to take on heavier debt loads than ever before, even after historic increases in Pell Grant funding.

Another analysis by the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of The Institute for College Access and Success, indicates about 69 percent of graduates from public and private nonprofit colleges in 2013 had student debt averaging $28,400. And according to an article in the AARP Bulletin, journalist Eileen Ambrose found that even older borrowers are defaulting at high rates, and defaulting on federal loans can result in hardships, such as garnishment of social security benefits. Furthermore, a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York indicates that student debt rose 12 percent to $1.08 trillion in 2013. Worse, the nation’s sharp rise in student debt is being driven mostly by Americans with poor credit and few resources. Almost half of student loan recipients are unable to make payments. This ticking financial time bomb not only discredits academe but also destroys the aspirations of students and their hard-working parents. After being aggressively recruited by colleges to pay their bills and after dropping out burdened with loan debt, students and their families find they were manipulated as pawns in a debt-transfer financed by tax dollars.

Yet, there is another choice. College administrators can use student tuition for student benefit by providing services and programs that have strong potential for increasing the academic success and the graduation rates of incoming students. Reacting to the debt-transfer game that some colleges play, the federal government and a number of states have been changing their financial aid formulas to include graduation rates as part of the granting process. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education, for example, recently approved a new state financial aid distribution policy that increases financial awards when students meet certain credit milestones and decreases awards when students do not graduate in a timely manner.

According to Joseph Garcia, Colorado’s Lieutenant Governor and Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, “We’re saying, schools, it’s your responsibility to admit these students and provide services to help them get through.”

Other states that are developing comprehensive plans to increase college graduation rates include Georgia, Indiana, Maryland and Tennessee. All states should support this direction to prevent poor students from being used as part of a bottom-line scheme. We believe when federal agencies, state governments, and accreditation services tie graduation rates to financial aid, college administration and faculty will work more cohesively to support a caring and substantive learning environment for the at-risk students who are aggressively recruited. This ethical direction is especially needed today because universities and corporations have been contributing financially – through expensive ads and generous grants – to corporate-owned media, thereby reducing the likelihood that these media sources will publish critiques of their sponsors. This devious tactic is already impacting negatively on the United States’ free press.

To help first-generation students succeed in college, administrators and professors must implement a support system that provides high-impact strategies as well as regular (required) access to a dedicated adviser with a small case load, a dedicated career and employment services staff member, and dedicated tutoring services. These types of support are key components of the highly successful City University of New York experiment, which helps a substantial number of students to graduate from community college.

Whether students complete two-year or four-year programs, society benefits considerably. Educated citizens are able to grow beyond their low-income status and to push their families into the middle class. They are more likely to have higher earning potential, greater job satisfaction, healthier lifestyle choices, health-care coverage provided by employers, and higher expectations for their children to earn a college degree. These are only a few of the reasons to work deliberately in promoting a high-impact commitment that supports students’ efforts to complete their college education. Undoubtedly, this momentum will boost the United States’ global competitiveness as it lessens the struggle and mistreatment of first-generation students, whose voices are often marginalized in higher education.

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.