First in Family, First to Graduate

By Emily Labandera

Fact: first-generation college students, those whose parents have never attended college or received a degree, pursue postsecondary education at lower rates than similarly prepared non-first generation peers. Because of the financial rewards associated with higher education, the first-generation enrollment gap undermines economic productivity as well as mobility and worsens income inequality. We can do better.

I am a first-generation student. My parents come from Cuba and Colombia. Neither of them have college degrees, and my father is the only one in my family who speaks English. Despite these barriers, my family supported me throughout my K-12 career. They always championed the idea that I could do anything to which I set my mind. I worked to maintain a competitive GPA and participated in extracurricular activities and community service in the hopes of going to college.

For me, like for many first-generation college students, navigating college applications and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was a challenge. An overwhelming number of questions plagued my every decision. Do I have to go to community college first before attending a four-year university? Is it even financially feasible for me to attend a community college, let alone a four-year university? At the time I was considering applying, my mother was unemployed and helping care for my grandfather who lived with us. We were a family of four living on $30,000 a year. Luckily, I had what all too many talented, first generation college capable students do not — friends who encouraged and helped me with the daunting FAFSA and college application process.

I was fortunate. I received a full scholarship to attend the University of Florida through the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program (MFOS) that covers total cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board, and books). This first-generation Latina was going to college!

MFOS provided peer mentoring, financial and academic counseling, and the incomparable relief knowing that I would not burden my parents or myself with the weight of student loans. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering and am currently pursuing a Master of Public Policy at George Washington University.

Understanding the challenges first-generation college students face is the first step towards increasing their likelihood of enrolling, graduating, and entering the workforce successfully. First-generation college students confront: a lack of college readiness, lack of familial support and financial stability, racial and ethnic underrepresentation on campus (especially among faculty), and difficulty adjusting to college. I faced these issues, but the University of Florida’s MFOS program helped me overcome them.

Key factors that help every first-generation student succeed in college

  1. Financial support: grant aid and scholarships covering tuition, fees, textbooks, rent, and living expenses
  2. Personal support: personal advising with faculty, advisors and/or life coaches
  3. Academic support: tutoring/study sessions, access to WiFi and computers
  4. Career counseling: access to career coaches and career service workshops

Programs addressing first-generation students’ needs

From high school through college, programs across the country are working to address the needs of first-generation students. While not all programs target first-generation students, programs that provide financial, personal, academic, and postgraduate support work for first-generation students because they address their needs. The programs highlighted below are just some of many across the country that provide such supports.

At the K-12 level, KIPP Through College helps students, many of them first-generation, prepare for college by suggesting a “best match” college and other schools that have positive outcomes for their students. It engages students in cohort or posse support systems by building relationships with other students, campus staff, college counselors, and more. KIPP provides counseling support for their students while in they’re in college. By the fall of 2016, 44 percent of KIPP alumni received a bachelor’s degree — four times higher than the rate of low-income students graduating college.

The MFOS Program provides first-generation college students full cost scholarships and grant aid for the duration of their undergraduate career, including money that covers tuition, fees, books, supplies, and living expenses. To maintain their awards, students must attend financial literacy training, career and life planning workshops, communicate with their assigned peer mentor, and complete a required First-Year Florida course. MFOS students are 44.2 percent more likely to graduate within four years in comparison to their peers. In comparison to their peers, Hispanic students within the program had a 79.9 percent higher four-year graduation rate and Black students in the program had 33.5 percent higher four-year graduation rate.

City University of New York (CUNY) ASAP provides students with career counseling, personal advising, tutoring, waivers for tuition/fees, MetroCards for transportation, and financial help with textbooks. The program is not limited to first-generation students, but first generation students are likely to come from low-income families, and ASAP helps cover the burdening costs of attendance. Overall, ASAP students had an on-time graduation rate that was 18.6 percentage points higher than their peers.

First-generation college students have everything to gain from financial, academic and social support when navigating the murky waters that are college enrollment and participation through to graduation. It is vital to understand the dynamic and diverse backgrounds first-generation college students come from, provide support services cognizant of them, and in turn true access to higher education attainment and the benefits that come from it.



For more information on first-generation students and how high schools can ensure students are college-ready upon high school graduation, check out Senior Associate for Policy and Advocacy, Dana Lauren’s latest blog.