Higher education, once seen as the beacon of upward mobility, now faces tough questions surrounding its accessibility, affordability, and academic quality. Among the most heavily burdened are first-generation students—individuals without at least one parent holding a bachelor’s degree. These students often emerge from a poor K-12 education, with limited understanding of financial aid options that could ease the financial burden of college. From the onset of their entry into higher education, many first-generation students are placed on a protracted path toward graduation; many drop out early, and some are even compelled to withdraw just a few classes before completing their degree.
One of the most significant barriers is affordability. Over 75% of first-generation students are from households with a combined income of $50,000 or less; 27% are from households with a combined income of $20,000 or less. Consequently, they rely heavily on student loans and other financial aid; and yet many of these students cannot easily access information that would allow them to maximize the financial help available to them. For those students who also have personal or family obligations, taking out large student loans can bring financial burdens that prevent them from reaching graduation or even attending college altogether.
Higher percentages of first-generation students are not prepared for the academic demands of college and must first take remedial classes, adding to the cost and duration of their higher education. Without adequate support services to address personal and academic challenges, many students continue to struggle and add to the statistics of those who do not complete their bachelor’s degree.
Amid budget cuts by state legislatures, public institutions have felt the pinch, as evidenced by the diminishing number of Pell Grant recipients at public colleges and universities. According to the College Access Index, high-quality schools like the University of Florida, University of Texas–Austin, and others have reduced their enrollments of low-income students, while boosting their enrollment numbers overall. State funding reductions are forcing colleges and universities to make difficult choices about how many low-income students they can afford to subsidize.
Community colleges and less selective four-year institutions—which serve larger numbers of low-income students—have also fallen victim to state fiscal measures. This scenario across the spectrum of higher education is worrisome for first-generation students who hope to attain a bachelor’s degree. Thankfully, there are encouraging examples of two-year and four-year institutions that are committed to changing the status quo.
Through the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), the City University of New York is providing financial, academic, and personal support to low-income students. This initiative is providing tuition waivers, public transportation cards, and subsidies for books to curb financial constraints, along with additional academic advising and flexible scheduling options.
The University Innovation Alliance (UIA)—an organization of 11 large, public research institutions—has committed itself to removing cultural and societal obstacles in higher education through collaboration. Through five early measures, as referenced via their website, UIA is setting a unique precedent for other institutions to follow:
In the first three years, UIA members have seen a 24.7% increase in first-generation graduation rates and expect an additional 68,000 undergraduates by 2025. By using predictive analytics and academic advising, participating institutions are now able to identify and intervene with students at risk of dropping out, and have also implemented completion grants to ensure that students’ degree completion is not affected by unforeseen financial challenges.
Recently, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) announced its Transformation Clusters Initiative to boost graduation rates at 100 “change-ready” institutions. Although the initiative is still in the early stages, the signs are encouraging. The organization hopes to group these institutions into 10 “transformation clusters” that will share data and collaborate to target issues of educational quality, financial aid, and academic advising, among other issues. Such improvements will directly change higher education for over two million undergraduate students across the country—many of whom are first-generation.
First-generation students have the ability to pursue and attain a four-year degree, yet too many odds are stacked against them. But there are signs of progress being made, with further improvements to follow. If higher education wants to fulfill its promise of empowering students of all backgrounds, it must dedicate itself to innovation to reduce costs and once again offer a world-class education to those who seek it.
Elliott Cole is ACTA’s Program Associate for Communications.
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