President Obama has repeatedly made clear his dedication to increasing the number of Americans receiving post-secondary education. He has pledged to significantly increase the number of Pell Grants and financial aid, as well as strengthen the efforts of public education to provide all high school graduates the skills needed to complete a year of college or vocational training. Though these goals are admirable and necessary, a key element of the problem--too few Americans attending post-secondary institutions--is being ignored entirely, with tragic consequences.
Before the gap between the educated and non-educated Americans may be bridged, the unique challenges facing first-generation college students must be addressed. A 2004 article by Ernest T. Pascarella published in the Journal or Higher Education notes that first-generation students are at a distinct disadvantage when compared to their non first-generation peers, receiving lower grades and proving more likely to drop out after the first year. This devastating disadvantage is largely due to first-generation students’ typical lack of understanding of the nuances of college life, such as what scholarship, counseling, aid and other programs exist, how to choose a major and create a graduation plan, and other skills essential in navigating a post-secondary institution. Essentially, by no fault or lack of intelligence, first-generation students are not succeeding at the level they could because they do not have the knowledge and advice provided by the family of their non first-generation peers.
This issue becomes increasingly disturbing when its cultural factors are examined. Countless studies have indicated that first-generation students are largely working-class or minorities. This often lends itself to the distress experienced by many first-generation students, as they struggle to reconcile being the “first in the family,” and maintain relationships with their non-college educated families and communities, while developing relationships with their college peers. This struggle can often foster an identity-crisis capable of even further crippling the academic performance of first-generation students. This illuminates the sweeping, cultural implications of this issue; because first-generation students, who represent a particular socio-economic and racial class, are not graduating at nearly the rates of their non first-generation peers (who likewise represent a specific socio-economic and racial class), an entire population of our country is being robbed of its chance for social improvement. Ultimately, the lack of graduation of first-generation students lends itself to the suppression--however inadvertent it may be--of low-income and minority families. An educational glass ceiling or sorts has been established, and it is only strengthened with each passing year when first-generation students are not given the assistance they so desperately need.
Though this issue which currently plagues our country is broad and reinforced by years of inaction, it need not be excessively difficult to eradicate. First-generation college students do not need charity, nor do they need their academic standards to be lax compared to their peers, because they are no less intelligent, capable or driven than their non first-generation classmates. Rather, first-generation students need what others, whose parents have attended college, already posses--savvy. Because first-generation students do not have the counsel, advice and support often provided by college-educated family members, aggressive counseling efforts must be implemented in high schools and colleges to address their unique needs and challenges. A 2009 article written by Naomi Rockler-Gladen of Campus Life points out that despite missing advice and guidance from college-educated parents, first-generation students have proven more likely to succeed when counseling and advising programs are utilized. America must recognize this trend and use counseling programs to their full potential; first-generation students must be sought by their universities and given specific counseling catered to their needs. The academic advisors and other counseling programs which currently exist, though proven beneficial, are clearly not enough to adequately assist this population. By ramping up counseling programs and targeting first-generation students specifically, drop-out rates may begin to be bridged.
Attacking college campuses is not enough, however. Counseling programs must likewise be implemented in high schools. Often, the success or failure of a college freshman is decided while he is still in high school--if a crucial application or scholarship deadline is missed, for example, that student already sits at a disadvantage when he arrives on campus. By attacking this issue from two fronts, high schools and colleges, first-generation students will be more likely to avoid the mis-steps and confusion which so often lead to their academic failure. It is only when we take these aggressive steps to accommodate the needs of this under-served demographic that President Obama’s dream of a truly educated America may be achieved.
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