The social and structural barriers impacting first-generation student experiences
Chi-town twin. That was Dominetrius Chambers’s nickname during her freshman year at Benedict College in South Carolina.
Chambers and her twin, Dimitriana, were born and raised in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. The two started their freshman year in August 2018 – each received a full scholarship and they were the first in their family to enroll and attend college.
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The twins thrived during their first few months, socially and academically, but in March 2019, while other students traveled off campus to visit their families or vacation for spring break, Chambers was by herself in a dorm room. Unable to afford a trip home from South Carolina, she stayed on campus by herself.
“I was so depressed,” Chambers said. “I needed support.”
Sitting in her dorm room all alone, she realized Benedict College wasn’t right for her. That semester, she began failing classes and struggled financially. Her scholarship had not covered living expenses – something she had not accounted for before her decision to enroll – and she felt she lacked the structure and resources she needed to succeed academically.
When she was having trouble, she would call home, and though her mother and grandmother would try to help as much as they could, they could not advise Chambers on her academic problems because they had never experienced college themselves. They also could not relieve her ongoing financial difficulties due to a lack of income.
Chambers often relied on her mentor, Lady Sanders, whom she met in high school back in Chicago. A first-generation student herself who graduated from Benedict College four years earlier, Sanders encouraged Chambers to stay in classes and sent money to help her stay afloat. Chambers said that without guidance from Sanders, she “probably would have been stuck."
But Sanders was in Chicago, and so was Chambers’s family. Unable to find support on campus, Chambers went home. She dropped out and never returned to Benedict College.
Dominetrius Chambers’s situation – leaving postsecondary education earlier than anticipated – is not unique. First-generation students are less likely to complete a postsecondary degree than their continuing-generation peers, with only 27 percent earning a bachelor's degree within four years of entering college, according to a study from The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
Research shows that low-income and first-generation students continue to lag behind continuing-generation peers in graduation rates, as well as in the amount of time it takes to obtain their degree. The low graduation rates are all the more striking because they come despite an increase in college enrollment among first-generation students.
There is a vast amount of research explaining why this is the case. Like Chambers, first-generation students often lack the financial or academic resources that they need to be successful. They can also struggle with so-called “imposter syndrome” – the feeling that they do not belong in college – and have trouble navigating the terrain of an institution.
Some of the challenges faced are due to the “unwritten rules of college,” sometimes referred to as social and cultural capital. Taught to continuing-generation students by their family, these are the behaviors valued by higher-education institutions that contribute to the success and retention of students.
Skills such as how to speak to professors, how to use a syllabus, how to find resources, and how to organize and structure your time for classes and homework are valued in collegiate settings. Studies have shown that when students possess this kind of “institutionally valued capital,” they tend to persist in matriculation and go on to graduate.
“Crossing into a journey across higher education is often like crossing into the unknown," said Deana Waintraub Stafford, the associate director of the Center for First-generation Student Success.
According to Stafford, higher-education institutions are designed “without first-generation students in mind.” In order to increase retention and graduation rates, she says institutions must confront and dismantle the barriers specific to first-generation students.
Many universities have initiatives dedicated to identifying first-generation students and introducing them to the resources available on campus to support them academically and socially. More than 200 institutions in the United States participate in the First-Generation College Student Celebration, an annual campus-wide event in which colleges host rallies, panel discussions, and parties to honor and uplift this group of students. Other institutions, such as Georgetown University, are performing their own studies to better understand and address the sense of “belonging” that is often absent for first-generation students.
Though universities are increasingly implementing these kinds of programs to address the needs of first-generation college students, they still have a long way to go, according to Maureen Hoyler, the president of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). COE is a nonprofit organization that provides college retention services for low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities. She says students need more than just money – they also need services to support their psychosocial well-being on campus.
“People tend to think that when you solve money for low-income students, you've solved the problems," said Hoyler, who conceived of the First-Generation Celebration. “But then you think of all the things that a solid middle-class family does as they move their child into college … they know that it's OK if you're not going to do great on your first English paper.” This emotional support – ongoing encouragement and expectation setting – comes naturally from parents who have experienced college already.
Hoyler, who has been with COE since it was founded in 1981, says that parents’ inexperience with common collegiate setbacks creates doubts both for them and their children about remaining in school. This, compounded with lack of academic preparation, financial difficulties, and imposter syndrome, will often lead a student to drop out.
The Chicago nonprofit One Million Degrees (OMD) provides support to low-income community college students by way of tutors, coaches, financial assistance, and professional development. It's a holistic model that takes into consideration the myriad issues first-generation students face when entering into higher education and provides strategies for overcoming the background-specific obstacles they are likely to face. "Up until relatively recently, the only people going to college were folks that had all the privilege and support in the world," said Paige Ponder, the CEO of One Million Degrees.
Ponder believes it is the responsibility of the institution to actively meet the needs of first-generation students rather than take the passive approach which is customary of higher-education institutions and which benefits those students who have support systems and knowledge of the inner-workings of the social and cultural landscape.
“We need to have advisors and counselors and other people in higher ed who [believe], ‘These are my people, this is my group, my job is to make sure they all graduate, and they all thrive in this institution,’” said Ponder. “First-generation students are much more likely to not really think that they're supposed to be there in the first place,” she explained. “When they hit a speed bump, they interpret it as confirming evidence that they're not really supposed to be there.”
Ponder says it is the relationships and the network of support provided to their “scholars,” the students enrolled in their program, that contribute most to a scholar's overall success. OMD has more than 500 volunteers who are matched with scholars to provide what they call “personal support.” They are paired up based on the interests and career path of the scholar and meet monthly to offer advice and mentorship.
OMD also has program coordinators on every campus who act as “success coaches,” partnering with students to help with accountability, goal setting, and time management. The key to the program is to create a sense of community among coaches and students, which in turn provides support and guidance in navigating higher-education institutions.
Early research suggests this approach is working. According to a study conducted by the University of Chicago's Poverty Lab, program scholars are 35 percent more likely to enroll full-time and 47 percent more likely to persist to the next term in their first year of the program.
Sonia Lee, a sophomore at Harold Washington College, attributes much of her ongoing success and persistence to OMD. In 2018, prior to becoming an OMD scholar, Lee enrolled in a four-year college. She received state funding to pay for the majority of her tuition. But the school later realized that she was ineligible for it and received it only due to a clerical error. Without this funding and without a co-signer for a loan, Lee was unable to continue at the university. At the end of her first semester, she went back to Chicago, $12,000 in debt and no longer enrolled in school. Her struggles with the bureaucracy of college left her feeling hopeless about her future.
“It would have been better for me to start out at a community college because of the lack of support and the lack of knowledge (I encountered at the university),” Lee said. “I had a sense of loneliness because this is my first experience. And I don't really have that much support or people calling or sending care packages.”
Today, she is a sophomore, with plans to transfer to a four-year college in 2021 to receive a bachelor’s in finance. She says that her mentor Kayla Siam, a first-generation college graduate, has been a model for her, an example of what is possible for her future. Siam is a mergers and acquisition attorney and recently launched a publishing company in which Lee interns.
“The best thing that could have happened to me was being introduced to my mentor,” Lee said. “I would not be here without seeing what she’s showing me.”
Like Lee, Chambers has re-enrolled in community college in Chicago, and she, too, attributes her success to her mentor, Lady Sanders, as well as her high school counselor. Both assisted Chambers with the application process and to obtain the financial aid package that paid for tuition and all of the additional expenses a college student might incur.
But the bureaucracy of college is still difficult to navigate for Chambers. When she was unable to join virtual classes, Chambers – who had registered for the fall 2020 semester on her own – assumed her school, Malcolm X College, had shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She reached back to her counselor from high school for help, but it wasn’t until she set up a meeting with them that she discovered there was an error on her Federal Student Aid application, which is required for federal student loans or grants and other types of institutional scholarships. Though it was easily corrected, the college’s fall classes had already begun, and it was too late for Chambers to register for her final semester of college until January 2021.
These setbacks are stressful for Chambers, but she remains committed.
“No matter how long it takes, I’m going to finish,” she said. “I’m going to get that degree.”