First-generation college students: Family can hinder rather than help

Yes, tech skills pay off, but should they be paired with a college degree?

John L. Glenn is an assistant professor of English at Atlanta Metropolitan State College.

By John L. Glenn

Many people, including administrators and faculty, wonder just what today’s minority college experience is really like.  Most are well-meaning and want the inside scoop so they can determine how best to aid this demographic. Others want to be more culturally aware and objective when they interact with students whose social frames of reference may be at odds with higher education.

I’m discussing minority students in particular, but poor whites arrive to campus with similar socioeconomic backgrounds.  The campuses I have in mind belong to two-year colleges and smaller four-year institutions.  The main thread is their “access” feature, which is there to bring in students who may not have been 4.0 giants in high school, but are outliers with tremendous untapped potential.

Then there are middle-aged adults looking to gain job skills or change careers.  But my favorite is probably the returning student who decided unskilled labor was a dead-end or that the vast university wasn’t hospitable — or they were just homesick.

All the same, there’s one prevailing irony that has found its way back to me every semester over the course of my decade of teaching freshman composition: many students perceive their families to be most detrimental to their education.

Sure, the college experiences of all students are increasingly riddled with challenges, financial, familial and otherwise.  Community college statistics across the board bear this out.  According to Complete College America, less than 20 percent of fulltime community college students in Georgia complete an associate’s degree within three years.  A different study points out that some of the other obstacles cited by students were problems relating to soft skills like balancing school and work and self-discipline.

When it concerns minorities, in particular, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement points to the sometimes overlooked importance of cultural competency in better serving students of color.  As these data points indicate, there is a need for innovation across colleges in the ways these issues are addressed.

Up to this point, colleges have attempted to target first generation and first-time-in-college students.  They have revamped gatekeeper courses and many have either scrapped altogether or overhauled developmental education.  But what does it mean to be a first-generation, minority college student?

It means being in a peculiar moment that has a lot to do with disruption.  College is an incredibly disruptive process for minorities.  The reality is that small colleges in Georgia are probably just as blanketed with feelings of isolation as Ivy League schools.

Right off the bat, college might mean facing off with parents who are unintentionally hostile to the idea of college, but still want the best for their sons and daughters.  It might involve quitting a job — making an already stressful financial situation even more precarious — to focus more on classes.

I’ve heard stories of students having to sit out a year because their parents simply refused to provide their tax documents. Others were forced to forfeit scholarships so they could remain “at home.” Really, for many, going to college is about more than just leaving the nest, which many don’t do; it’s like metaphorically taking an axe to the nest and signaling the family identity will never be the same.

I suspect many minorities in Atlanta enter higher education with little moral support. Few at home get it, and they are themselves on the fence.

This isn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster, but it certainly doesn’t create the context for students to fully take advantage of the opportunities college offers. And isn’t that the whole point. You shouldn’t be so mired in feelings of guilt that you can’t harness the full potential of a college education, not the mention the mental health implications.

One of things I appreciate most about community colleges is that because their funding literally hinges on retention and equipping students with the skills needed to function at college level and ultimately graduate, many are committed to engagement and support. Books like “The First Year Out” and “The Purposeful Graduate” —  and a host of others — tell us about the practical ways they learn to manage college life and the need for colleges to shift from a rigid focus on career training.

Perhaps, minority college students need an institutional focus similar to what veterans are provided on campuses across the country.  There are numerous Adjustment-to-College and Transition and Retention programs out there, but new student orientation is really the first line of defense when it comes to the family resistance many students will face.

Colleges should retool orientation programs to focus on informing students more about opportunity and less about policies and test-taking strategies. For example, one approach is for orientation to take on a more practical focus, to facilitate discussions about socioeconomic mobility and the institutions that make it possible.

In this format, questions like “What opportunities are available beyond nursing or majoring in business?” or “Where is my family situated socioeconomically?” or “How much money do I need to earn to live well in Atlanta?” will surface. Question and answer sessions will help students arrive at a deeper understanding of what it means to be a college student and then take ownership of that identity.  And there’s also the added bonus of useful qualitative data that comes out of this approach.

To overcome family resistance, colleges must socialize students to the idea of utilizing institutions like small colleges to take advantage of larger opportunities in society.

 

 

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16 comments
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I really wish the author of this post wrote this race neutral. This issue is all about SES, and being the first in your family to obtain a college degree. Right now, it is assumed that white and Asians are firmly part of the middle and upperclass and don't need the scholarships or extra help getting to college. So many do, they also need support of mentors.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@Another comment You make a good point that low income white and Asian students who are the first attendees in their families have difficulties that children of 2nd or 3rd or 4th gen college attendees do not have.  Race likely makes yet another difficulty, but most of the problems are common regardless of race.

methuselahschild
methuselahschild

i wont say university is for everyone. I will say that one with little skills get little pay.

i am a big proponent for doing away with the general education diploma and replacing it with either vocational tech track or a university track. i was the first in my family to go and graduate from university. Before that i took machine shop in vo-tech school and did not return to class till i had worked in industry for 3 years. you have to have something inside you, a hunger, to do this if you are from a poor family.  high school prepared those of us to enter the work force as workers not thinkers.. I only have one thing to add to the university experience. When entering, make sure your major is something in which you can earn money and at least live a middle class life. Gauge what you are spending on that degree with what you will earn if you graduate. Poor folks do not have the luxury of taking small wages after paying high cost for education.  also make sure there is a need and opportunity in your chosen field, it may be interesting to be a expert on women studies. but the truth is the jobs are few and far between. sociology is another word for social worker, a poor paying job with many headaches. Do your homework before choosing a field. truth is money cant buy happiness, however a lack of money(living hand to mouth) will make you extremely unhappy.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@methuselahschild 

Much you say here is true, and I congratulate you for making it through to finish college from an unpromising beginning. I'd add two things though. 

Job fields change nowadays rather rapidly; and if too many try to enter a field because it seems lucrative--as with Law--the field will become depressed. So the student's own inclination is important.  Also, some of the fields that seem impractical (like the two you mention of women's studies and sociology) with only a B.A. become good preparations for advanced degrees in other fields...even Business. It's the combination  of fields that can be important.  The B.A. or B.S. need not be the student's end-goal!

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

This is a typical, and frequent, problem.  Parents are suspicious of additional education. Kids hear "You are not gonna get above yore raisin'"  or "School has nothin' to do with livin'. Look at me!  I made a good livin' in the mills."


When I came here, 42 years ago, I only had one student out of 25 who had two parents who had finished high school! A few mommies had, but average daddy education was 6th grade.  A few had finished 3rd grade, and the average for moms was 10th grade.  You got married, got a trailer and a car, and had kids. Dad worked in the mills or in the chicken plant.


Kids from families without higher ed experience need mentors--someone who will say, "This is tough but you can do it!"  They need folks who will encourage them through the nearly-shut doors they encounter, so they won't quit.  They need people who have done it to say, 'You belong here."


I used to take my kindergarteners to North Georgia College.  There, they saw the biology lab, the INDOOR swimming pool, the marching fields, the dorms.  Some people thought that was silly--these kids would never go to college! But you have to plant the seed.  Now, all these years later, I have quite a few tell me, "I remember that.  It opened my eyes."


I am currently working with a former student who wants to go to college.  I had told her when she was 8, 9, 10, that she could do this, that when she was ready to call me.  She did.  She has successfully navigated financial aid and we are working to improve her SAT and her skills.  I have also helped her identify people at the college who can help, and will help, when she is not sure what to do.  When I taught a First Year Experience class, this is what I did.


I think many colleges are becoming more sensitive to the needs of these students, but ultimately they have to be willing to buck their families and make it happen.


For anyone interested, there is a book called, "How the Poor Get to College" which is a case study of some of the least likely to ever end up in college, and how it happened.  Spoiler alert: It was because SOMEONE (maybe not a family member) helped the student navigate the "getting in" and the "staying in."

redweather
redweather

Most colleges have a course, often called First Year Experience, that all students are required to take. It covers a wide range of topics related to academic success. The ones I'm familiar with are not devoted solely to test taking strategies. If Atlanta Metropolitan doesn't offer such a course, maybe it should. 

Another comment
Another comment

As a first generation student, I can attest you are spot on. It continues your entire life, with parents and siblings who don't achieve.  I have made it my mission to mentor any willing first generation student I can.  I can personally attest to the Financial Aide road blocks: 1.) one students mother just hadn't bothered to do her taxes. She was too busy going out to eat and clubs with her boyfriend every night and weekends after work. ( She felt she deserved this since she had children as a teen and missed out on partying.).  A benefactor for the girl ( who had asked me to help mentor the girl), enlisted a volunteer CPA ( who was now a CFO level person, not a storefront tax preparer) to help do the mothers taxes. The mother was too inconvenienced to go to his house on Saturday. He ended up going to her house and getting her back over $4,000 in earned income and child tax credits. The student qualified for close to the full Pell Grant.  2.)  A student I have been helping this year. I told the mother repeatedly that I would go to her CPA with her when she did her taxes to make sure they were done in the best interest of College. Does she call no. She brings taxes done by a prep firm that I warned her about years ago, as being suspicious. I helped fill out what I could. Then on the Federal Financial Aide form males must have registered for the draft. She says no her son is not going in the military. He is going to  college. I try to explain there has been no draft in years and their most likely will not be before the kid turns 18.  I have repeatedly asked if she has gotten confirmation and an aide letter from the college. She says no. So I told her the son needs to call the College Financial Aide Office.  She calls me the next day and says they wont process it because he is missing something. I finally just ask to speak to the kid and he says I just had to sign up for the Selective  Service which I did online in five minutes.  (  I know why her older son got zero financial aid when he went one semester another part of the State System. She would not let him sign up for the selective service.)

GA_and_Education_futile
GA_and_Education_futile

@Another comment So sad..my oldest graduated in 2012 and she has a friend whose parents won't allow her nor her siblings to go to college. So she sat at home with no car, until recently. They allowed her to get a job but they refused to take her to the interview. She was hired, but I pray that she finds her way to college. What shocked me is that this is a two parent household with a beautiful home...strange!


My daughter has told her that she can join the military and that's one way to escape...she didn't. I wish her the best!  

Mrs. Martinez
Mrs. Martinez

My hubby is one of 6 in a blended Hispanic and white family. He is the only college graduate. My mom is white and was the only one of 7 to graduate college. My dad who is white was the first generation in his family of 7 to go to college and has a Ph.D. This is what separates successful people and is not a racial issue but an economic one.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Mrs. Martinez 

Race really has nothing to do with this, and I hope that none see this essay as racial code that white people know the importance of college and other ethnic/racial groups don't. It's a socioeconomic class thing, not a minority thing.

Another comment
Another comment

The two examples that I gave the girl was African American and the Boy would be classified as white non Hispanic. It is all about SES and first in the family going to college.

eulb
eulb

@Another comment re: selective service.  I helped a southeast Asian immigrant family with a similar issue.  Their son's student loan funds would not be released unless he was registered for selective service.  His parents feared he would be forced into the army and sent overseas to kill fellow Muslims so they urged him to click "no".  Finally, I asked the young man whether he has a valid Georgia driver's license.  Answer: "yes."  A little more checking revealed that he had registered for selective service when he got his driver's license. He had simply forgotten all about that.  So he merely needed to click "yes" to acknowledge his prior registration.   With that click, his student loan funds were immediately released, tuition was paid, and he was able to sign up for his first semester classes.  Parents were visibly upset. After that semester, their son never accepted any more student aid.  I don't know for sure, but I have a hunch his parents steered him away from financial aid, hoping it would somehow undo his selective service registration.  Misconceptions abound!

Amy Blafer
Amy Blafer

I could not agree more. I dealt with similar circumstances as a first generation college student. I was basically dropped off with no support, because colleges in the 1980's assumed that all students had a support system at home. I had none. At least they recognize there is an issue and they are trying to address it. I give the colleges a lot of credit.