Reflections from WT: First Generation University Students

By Walter Wendler

Following on from sharing the first four thoughts published in November 2017, here is the second piece I wrote after arriving at WT.

In 1769, Charles Thompson received financial aid from the widow of John Hobbs to study ministry at Brown University. In 1792, the Philadelphia Association gave President Brown permission to employ a student to ring the bell. For this, the student earned tuition, fees, room and board. Financial aid and work to pay for education are not new.

Wayland Baptist University, named after Francis Wayland, former president of Brown University and a prominent advocate for the abolition of slavery, began admitting African-American students 70 years ago. Probably, all first generation.

Meeting the needs of first-generation students is important, historic, and increasingly contemporary. The majority of the group are students of color with rapidly growing Hispanic and Latino segments.

Somewhere between a third and a quarter of all current post-secondary students are “first generation”. Definitions vary widely. In all circumstances, the group grows and the success rates plummet. Six-year graduation rates are 40% for first-generation students and 55% for those whose parents are in college.

Money, just like the case in the 1700s, is always an issue. However, integration and a sense of accomplishment are also confusing challenges for many first-generation students. Don’t confuse the focus on first-generation students with an indication that everyone should go to college, because it will make them smarter, happier, and better citizens. Fortunately, this is the case for many, but it is not universal. Military service, trades and technical fields offer good career opportunities and are powerful alternatives for all categories of students, including the first generation.

The idea that borrowing for college at any cost is a good investment is patently false. Scholarship and grant opportunities are essential. Unfortunately, the fastest growing group of alumni in the United States are students in debt who have not completed their bachelor’s degrees, creating contempt and suspicion for teaching. superior. Lenders who undoubtedly fund college loans, students and families who undoubtedly study in fields where employment may be non-existent, and university leaders and legislators who pedal a bill that any college degree is a good investment, no matter what it costs, all mislead students. This is particularly glaring with first-generation college students and their hope-chasing parents.

Ioanna Opidee, in University Business Magazine, outlines a number of considerations that apply equally to first-generation students and all students. UT’s Center for Community College Student Engagement reports that 47 percent of first-generation college students plan to transition to a four-year college. Those who are not the first in the family to attend say they plan to transfer at a 20% higher rate. Responsive universities will diligently seek out community college graduates, especially first-generation students, to complete their bachelor’s degree with little or no debt and a clear sense of future vocation or graduate school.

Universities interested in attracting first-generation students should establish a strong presence in high schools. The dialogue could be a source of insight and wisdom regarding the costs and benefits of a college degree.

Summer programs informing students of the opportunities available to those completing a bachelor’s degree would help clarify and define the aspirations of college students. MIT sponsors a program that allows high school counselors to participate in the admissions process, identifying hard-working and committed students who show a strong propensity to succeed even when they may be the lowest performing applicants and average student. Often, first-generation college students fall into this category.

Living learning communities — dormitories that house students with similar backgrounds and interests — could be beneficial for first-generation students. My own experience as a first generation student allowed for a transfer to Texas A&M University. I was living in Utay Hall, dorm #12, on the Corps Quad. A hundred other transfer students, mostly first-generation, joined me. We were a living learning community, but no one told us. We thought the first task was survival among the cadets. I wasn’t following, and we lost a number of battles, but I think our persistence rate was a win. First-generation college students, as is the case with all college students, do best when they engage in leadership opportunities.

Engaging first-generation students leads to more prosperous state, local, and national economies. According to the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, strong families are the key to economic prosperity. “The proportion of married parents in a state is one of the strongest predictors of economic outcomes studied in this report. In fact, this family factor is generally a stronger predictor of economic mobility, child poverty and family income median in US states than are the state education, race, and age compositions.

Strong social and mentorship structures – such as families – coupled with appropriate opportunities and balanced aspirations build economic power, an important role for public universities.

Universities should commit to helping first-generation students to be the last branch of the first-generation family tree, if higher education is their aspiration.

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