First generation college students struggle to make it academically

May 15, 2009

Staying the course; Many freshmen struggle with grades, but those who are the first in their families to go to college have to overcome greater hurdles
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Wednesday, April 21, 2004

It was early in the fall semester, and Raymond Gonzalez, the first in his family to go college, was enthusiastic about his start as a freshman at the University of Texas at Arlington.

He had met nearly everyone in his dorm and was having a blast. English and algebra were a bit tough, but he felt he was doing well academically and did not need a tutor.

“There are so many people that are willing to help, so I’m not really worried,” Gonzalez, of Waco, said at the time.

By December he had flunked out.

“Socially, I made a lot of friends. I think it was a distraction. It did take up a lot of my time,” said Gonzalez, 18, who now lives with his sister in Dallas and works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. at a drugstore. “There were times I was doing something when I should have been upstairs studying.”

Many college freshmen struggle to keep up academically. But so-called first-generation students, like Gonzalez, face a steeper climb. With no family background in higher education, they frequently lack what one expert calls the “cultural capital” to succeed. And even when they prepare with rigorous high school work, they are less likely to graduate than their peers.

First-generation students arrive on campus “not knowing the language of the university, not knowing who to ask for help,” said Marisol Arredondo, director of institutional research at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on first-generation students.

“They don’t have their parents to rely on; they have not been exposed to the college experience or even the college environment,” Arredondo said.

Nationwide, only 13 percent of first-generation students earn their bachelor’s degrees, compared with 33 percent of students whose parents have at least some college experience, according to a 1998 study done for the U.S. Education Department.

For Texas, the cost of failure could be high.

The state is trying to increase enrollment by 50 percent to build a stronger work force. The push, which includes increasing enrollments at nearly every public university in the state, is putting more first-generation students in college classrooms.

But state officials are just starting to focus on the needs of first-generation students. The University of North Texas in Denton shared in $1.2 million in grants the state gave to universities this year for first-generation scholarships.

Gloria White, deputy assistant commissioner in the division of participation and success for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said the agency will soon start tracking first-generation students in its reports.

The coordinating board has set up “Go Centers” in high schools with low college enrollment rates, such as North Dallas High School. The centers, although not specifically for first-generation students, complement guidance counselors and seek to encourage students to go to college.

The federal government, by contrast, has been trying to help first-generation and other underrepresented students for decades. In the 1960s, the Johnson administration developed Upward Bound, which tries to break barriers through tutoring, counseling and visits to campuses before students enroll in college.

Phuong Nguyen, who is the first in her family to go to college, joined Upward Bound when she was a junior at South Grand Prairie High School.

She’s now a freshman at UT-Arlington. Shortly after arriving on campus, she connected with Students Obtaining Academic Readiness. This sister program of Upward Bound placed Nguyen in a structured tutoring program. She finished her first semester with three As and two Bs.

“If you know you have tutoring every day it forces you to study, and it makes your life a little more structured,” Nguyen said in October.

The 19-year-old also said that she decided to take difficult math courses when she was in high school and that she hasn’t had difficulty with college-level math.

Gonzalez said he struggled with algebra at UT-Arlington and felt unprepared academically.

“I felt a little less educated. I felt like they knew more than I did,” he said.

A 2001 study for the Education Department found that first-generation students who take academically rigorous courses in high school increase their chances of succeeding in college. They’re still, however, statistically at a disadvantage compared with their peers whose parents have some college experience.

First-generation students such as Gonzalez and Nguyen come from families that can give encouragement but can’t offer detailed guidance.

“I didn’t have much advice. I didn’t have many people to ask,” Gonzalez said. “Most of the people that I talked to didn’t experience it themselves.”

Nguyen couldn’t get specific parental advice either, but as a participant in the Upward Bound program she was touring UT-Arlington as a high school junior, meeting students, faculty and even taking college classes during the summer.

“It kind of gave me a taste of what college was going to be like,” she said.

Lisa Thompson, director of the UT-Arlington Upward Bound program, said about 40 percent of participants who enroll at the university go on to graduate.

Parents who haven’t gone to college can’t give much substantive advice, but Thompson said it’s still important for them to be fully behind their children’s efforts to get a college degree. She said Upward Bound has a parents association where they can meet and hear from professors, financial aid administrators and others.

Money is often another challenge for first-generation college students, experts say. For example, Education Department studies have found that large majorities of first-generation students attend more affordable public universities.

“First-generation students … are somewhat more likely to be black or Hispanic; they come from families with lower incomes,” said Dennis Carroll, the department’s associate commissioner for postsecondary statistics.

Many of these students start at community colleges, which are increasingly important to the state’s effort to educate the populace.

The state does not have figures on how many first-generation students are in community colleges, but they make up about 60 percent of community college students nationally, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

About 35 percent of Tarrant County College students are the children of parents who have never attended college, said Mark Escamilla, the college’s associate director of enrollment services.

He said many of them attend community colleges because they’re cheaper and closer to home — and he said they’re ending up in the right place.

The community college setting is geared more toward first-generation students’ needs, with smaller classes and counselors who know how to help, Escamilla said.

“It is set up to assist students with no experience in college and to also assist whole families to navigate the system,” he said. “The community college is distinctly an American invention. It’s called ‘democracy college’ for a reason. We’re the most suited for students such as our first-generation students.”

Gonzalez said he plans to enroll in a community college and earn enough credits for UT-Arlington to take him back.

“I’m definitely going back,” he said. “Right now I hate not being in school. I miss it even though it was hard.”