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First-generation Students Need Continued Support for College, Says Report


First-generation students say navigating the admissions process and receiving continuing support after getting in are some of the key elements in raising their aspirations, according to a new study by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

“Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students” is based on interviews with Hispanic and Black students enrolled in TRIO’s Talent Search and Upward Bound programs in six Texas cities — Dallas, Edinburg, El Paso, Houston, Kingsville and San Antonio. The students were either from low-income backgrounds, were first-generation students or both.

According to Dr. Colleen O’Brien, director of the Pell Institute and a co-author of the report, it is not enough to raise first-generation students’ hopes and dreams.

“To make the successful leap to college, disadvantaged students need intensive help with the admissions and financial aid processes and a real comfort level with both campus life and college academic support resources. And once they are in college, the challenges to stay enrolled are just as significant,” O’Brien says.

At present, there are 6.5 million first-generation undergraduate students. The report also shows the wide range of issues first-generation students come across in their quest to finish college, such as understanding why college matters and involving family members in the transition. The study recommends prior exposure to college life and knowledge about financial aid programs, and, once enrolled, access to college-based support services.

“The students we interviewed said they were fortunate to participate in pre-college access programs and noted that many of their non-participant peers were at the mercy of schools and counselors who lacked the resources to effectively guide them into college,” O’Brien says. “Many of our recommendations address ways to expand access services beyond the limited population already being served.”

Report co-author Jennifer Engle says there is a strong overlap between low-income students and those who are also first-generation students. Personal motivation plays a large role, too, but “some of them don’t even dare to have the aspiration because they don’t think its possible,” she says.

Engle says it is also evident that many first-generation students believe their families play a significant role in their journey towards college. But there are a lot of unmet needs once the students get into college.

“Once they get there the support is not always there. This gap needs to be addressed,” Engle says.

U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness, says “the Pell Institute’s report enhances our understanding of the complexities of life for first-generation students.”

Dr. Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, says the disadvantages of first-generation students are palpable from the report.

“Many of these kids are smart, but just don’t think college is for them and believe that it is financially way beyond their reach,” he says.

The report is available online at

By Shilpa Banerji

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