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Equal Voice

Going to College Is Hard for First-Gen Students. Staying Is Harder.

May 16, 2019

By Amy Rolph

First-generation college students confront steep hurdles getting into and finishing college, including a lack of support in high school and college, unwelcoming campuses, heavy student-loan burdens and parents who have not been though the process.

Cesar Cruz wasn’t planning on going to college. He wouldn’t even have set foot in the testing room at Glendale Community College in California if his friend and their high-school teacher hadn’t conspired to get him there under the pretense of going for a bike ride.

Cruz took the test. He placed into college-level courses, but he still didn’t want to enroll. He didn’t see the point of community college. Instead of becoming a first-generation college student, he wanted to get a job and help his parents pay the family’s bills.

Then his high-school teacher put it to him this way.

“He asked, ‘Do you feel like you can be more effective if you just work and do the same work they do?’” Cruz recalled. “‘Or do you think you can pay them back by being better than what they’re doing? If you just do the same work they do, you haven’t broken the cycle.’”

Cruz enrolled in community college. Now, he is studying English and education at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, and mentoring undocumented youth.

Stories of wealthy families buying their way into elite universities have dominated the news lately. But first-generation students like Cruz don’t need to follow the headlines to know the system isn’t fair.

As an undocumented immigrant, person of color, first-generation-college student and someone who speaks English as a second language, Cruz knows America’s education system is stacked against him. That’s one reason why he works with undocumented youth. He wants them to have the support he didn’t have in middle school and high school.

Students whose parents didn’t go to college are less likely to enroll themselves – and they’re less likely to graduate, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. A study by the center determined that roughly one third of first-generation students left school by their third year, compared to just 14 percent of students whose parents also attended college.

College is this mythical place,” Ford said. “So many young people have never really been on a campus. They don’t really understand what college is about.

“So many young people of color don’t have that intergenerational knowledge – a parent or family member who has gone through the process,” said Eric Ford, director of The Choice Program at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). “The process is very intimidating to them. They don’t know what it takes to be successful.”

Ford noted that colleges and universities can be particularly intimidating places for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t want to ask for help. And often schools don’t seek out vulnerable students to offer assistance.

“College is this mythical place,” Ford said. “So many young people have never really been on a campus. They don’t really understand what college is about.”

But, a college education can help lift a family out of poverty. Data analyzed by Opportunity Insights at Harvard University shows students from wealthy and poor backgrounds earn roughly the same amount after graduating from college. But, researchers also found that at schools that give the highest economic gains, enrollment of students from poor backgrounds fell off after 2000.

An emphasis on standardized tests, unwelcoming campuses and a myriad of other factors can keep students with low-incomes from earning college-level degrees. And debt from student loans can undermine the promise of economic stability after they graduate.

The accumulation of student loans is one reason why a college education doesn’t always spell economic equality for families of color, according to Mark Huelsman, associate director of policy and research at Demos, a Washington D.C.-based research and litigation nonprofit that advocates for equity issues.

“White families headed by a high-school dropout have the same level of wealth as a college-educated Black family,” said Huelsman. “All of this has led to a system where Black families in particular, but also Latino families, have less wealth to weather a rainy day when it comes to paying off that debt.”

Accumulating debt for education is a relatively new problem, Huelsman added. Student loans became more common as public funding faltered and for-profit colleges took root.

“It wasn’t until the ‘90s that you had a greater chance of taking on debt than you had of going debt free,” Huelsman said.

Add to that disadvantages related to institutionalized racism and poverty, and some students have mile-high hurdles to overcome on their way to college. These barriers are higher still if parents aren’t equipped to guide them through the process.

Parents are key to college readiness, said Gloria Corral, president and CEO of the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE). Her organization helps parents understand the expectations of educators and admissions officers.

“Parents think that because their child is graduating, that means they are college ready,” Corral said. “They think that because they’re doing everything they’re doing, and the child is showing up to school and progressing, that means the parent is doing what they need to do. That the student is doing what they need to do.”

Teachers aren’t trained to help parents understand college requirements, added Patricia Mayer, vice president of program development at PIQE. She said teachers aren’t always from the communities they serve, which creates an even bigger breakdown in understanding.

“How can our system – the wealthiest country in the world, the most powerful country in world – how can we have a system that does not prioritize the relationship between the family and the teacher?” Mayer said.

No Help Along the Way

Cesar Cruz came to the U.S. with his younger brother when he was just 10 years old, making a long and dangerous journey from El Salvador to reunite with his parents. Once he was here, he struggled to learn English and do well in school.

“I never had anyone to help me with homework,” Cruz said. “I was making mistakes left and right, but when I’d try to approach someone for help, they didn’t know how to help me. They didn’t know what it was like to be in my situation.”

Then his high school government teacher – the same one who later pushed him to go to community college – told him “in the education system, decisions are made for us without us knowing results.”

“He was kind of like the one who gave me that, for lack of a better word, that kick in the behind,” Cruz said.

Now, he’s trying to decide between working as a teacher when he graduates and going to law school to become an immigration attorney.

“Those two things tug at my heart,” he said. “They bring me back to where I started.”


Amy Rolph is an award-winning journalist based in Seattle. She has worked as a writer and editor for national and regional news sites and publications as well as public radio. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted content – articles, photos and videos – created specifically for Equal Voice can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

Going to College Is Hard for First-Gen Students. Staying Is Harder.