My First-Generation Perspective

By Dana Laurens



Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at the annual 1vyG Conference–held at the University of Pennsylvania–on a panel alongside Dr. Sean Vereen, Dr. Laura Perna, and Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab. 1vyG is a weekend-long gathering that provides a unique opportunity for over 500 first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students enrolled in Ivy League colleges and universities-and their allies-to mobilize, empower, and learn from each other.

I was honored to participate because I, too, am a first-generation college student. My parents and I immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago when I was young so I could have more opportunities than they were afforded.

I keenly remember the morning my father excitedly shook me awake to let me know that I had been selected for the University of Virginia’s (UVA) University Achievement Award–a full four-year scholarship covering tuition and fees offered to 50 of the roughly 3,000 students in the incoming class with the aim of creating a more diverse student body. Without the burden of tuition weighing on me or my family, I could invest entirely in my educational experience, something more affluent students are able to do as a matter of course. For example, I had the opportunity to join a Greek organization, which required a hefty semesterly fee, and intermingle with the broader population of students at UVA, the majority of whom were not first-generation. I didn’t have to take on a part-time job during the school year and had the financial flexibility to travel abroad during breaks with programs like “January-Term,” where I spent almost a month exploring art history in Italy.

Although financial support helped level the playing field in some ways, I was extremely aware that I was not like the majority of my peers when it came to my level of academic preparedness. Overwhelmed by the academic rigor of my courses, I had a tough first semester which was reflected in my GPA. My experience being less prepared than my non-first-generation peers is a common one. However there are a variety of reasons, and thus, a variety of solutions, that should be considered when thinking about how to close the preparation gap.

Research shows that almost one-third of all ACT test-takers fail to meet four key college-readiness benchmarks, but more than half of first generation students fail to do so. First-generation students with limited access to SAT or ACT prep courses, or the exams themselves, end up underprepared.

Although my grades in high school and SAT score were well within the range for admission to UVA, I lacked exposure to higher-level courses needed for my major. I was fortunate to earn AP credit in high school for the entry level courses required of all UVA students. However, I struggled more than my classmates who were exposed to the courses required for our major in high school, such as Economics and Accounting. I was learning everything for the first time and trying to simply keep up.  

Fortunately, through various peer-based support systems, including the Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness (SOCA) and Greek life, I received academic guidance and coaching and established a time-management routine that improved my academic experience and grades over time. These supports would have been helpful regardless of my level of high school preparedness or financial resources. The need for these types of support, in addition to financial aid and counseling, is one I heard repeatedly while at the 1vyG conference from first-generation students.

Regardless of the reason a student ends up underprepared, much more needs to be done to boost college preparedness if we’re going to succeed, as a society, in providing opportunities for upward mobility to young people from families where no one, as yet, has completed college. So how could high schools ensure students are college-ready upon high school graduation? Here are three ideas:

1) High school graduation requirements should be aligned to college readiness and schools should be accountable for students’ post-secondary success

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to align their academic standards to “entrance requirements for credit-bearing coursework in the system of public higher education in the State and relevant State career and technical education standards.” States and districts should consider updating current high school graduation requirements that equip students with 21st century knowledge and skills — for example, offering AP Economics or AP Computer Science in place of a traditional math or science credit requirement. Even though enforcement of ESSA’s key requirements has gone largely unchecked by the U.S. Department of Education, states and districts should go beyond ESSA to make college enrollment and completion indicators in their accountability systems.

2) Students should have an opportunity to take the SAT or ACT free of charge

According to Brookings, “…in a dozen states, the ACT or SAT is now given in school, for free, on a school day during school hours. In most cases, the ACT or SAT replaces the standardized test that students would otherwise take in high school, so there is no additional time spent testing. This is an attractive feature, given the widespread backlash against perceived over-testing in schools. Sitting for the test is also required, which means that students can’t opt out because of low expectations – whether theirs or those of the adults around them.”

3) Give students opportunities to boost college readiness during 12th grade

As noted in ERN’s 2016 report “Out of Pocket,” some states, including Washington and California, are using high school assessment data to provide students with follow-up opportunities for advancement or interventions in their senior year of high school to ensure they are on-track to graduate college-ready. Other states, like Kentucky, require specific transitional courses or interventions for students who do not meet the state’s college-ready benchmarks for mathematics of English Language Arts — in essence, making 12th grade a remediation year for those students.


For more on what can be done to help first-generation students already enrolled in postsecondary education, check out our intern Emily Labandera’s latest blog.