There are a few key milestones in the first semester of a college freshman’s life: the first few days away, especially if they’re on a far-off campus; the first big paper to write; the first big exam. Teary calls home or anguished texts may come in the night, along with family and friends’ reassurances that all will be well.
Then there’s the Thanksgiving breakdown. If it comes, this one is bad.
The student who left to great fanfare for a near-magical life journey at their dream school returns home to a hero’s welcome at family gatherings. Practically everywhere they go someone is asking them how classes are going, whether they like their professors, what their major is.
It’s a ton of pressure—especially if things aren’t going well. And then, if the student feels confident enough in their support system to be open, the tears come.
Desperation finally reveals itself, and the truth comes tumbling out: Classes are way harder than they were in high school, the professors are too tough on students, the first tests were impenetrable, and their final papers loom like seemingly insurmountable tasks.
These are just your standard, high-achieving kids who were always expected to go to college because their moms and dads, and maybe other family members, attended a university. For these students, this is probably just a natural bump in the road.
For a first-generation college student—the first in his or her family to attend college—it could be a devastating roadblock that presages an eventual drop-out.
In fact, a full third of first-generation college students who were on track to graduate with a degree during the 2003-04 academic year left their studies and didn’t return to school within three years, according to the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
There are so many reasons for this: financial-aid woes (despite many superstar first-generation students being people of color, they don’t all get full rides or tons of scholarships) and problems fitting in to affluent campus cultures.
But the biggest issue has to be that students of color who achieve great academic success in high school are oftentimes unaware that their community schools left them woefully unprepared for math classes like calculus (sometimes even if they took it in high school), or for building and defending a point-of-view in writing.
This has been a well-known issue in getting students of color and low-income white students into higher ed for decades—one that I expected would get worse as universities trended toward dropping requirements for high ACT or SAT scores for admission.
In 2011, DePaul University in Chicago dropped its standardized test score requirement for incoming freshmen, because the correlation between high test scores and parents’ income or education had a negative impact in evaluating first-generation college students.
At the time, I lamented that it would represent a dumbing down of educational standards in high schools when they were already low. After all, a mere quarter of the nation’s high school graduating class of 2011 had ACT scores that indicated they were likely to score a B or higher in college courses.
But luckily I was wrong—27% of the high school graduating class of 2018 met all the benchmarks that would predict they’d score a B or higher in college courses.
This is because inequality in this country still trumps any market fluctuations in how certain people get in to college and excel once they arrive on campus.
In the race to college, the schools with resources prep their students for the ACT and the SAT rather than relying on parents to pay for the service. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, mind you, but because in the past eight years more and more public-school systems across the country have adopted the ACT or SAT as their official measure of academic success.
Schools with few resources just have to hope that giving their students the ACT or SAT test for free will encourage some to try to go to college at all.
As a result, the kids who came home last week to a family full of college grads will overwhelmingly be fine. They’ll have any fear tears wiped away and be reassured by a track record and maybe given some tough love.
The first gens may not even have the courage to open up, fearing the dreaded “I told you so.”
The sting will only be made worse by the finger-wagger being right, because kids from low-income communities are all too often not adequately prepared to thrive in college.