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The Plight of Most First-generation College Students

Dr. Joseph SanacoreDr. Joseph Sanacore

As student advocates for more than three decades, we recognize the vitally important bond between student and college, especially for those who are the first in their families to attempt a college education. As such, we object when colleges engage in unethical practices to balance their budgets, such as accepting “marginal” students who qualify for loans and government-backed financial aid but not providing these students with the services and programs they need to achieve success. Too many low-income students who are often first-generation students find themselves gamed when they meet with admissions counselors who help them to complete loan applications but neglect to explain the difference between being accepted to college and graduating from college—and the subsequent need to repay student loans.

We believe these schools are more concerned with tuition payments than students’ welfare and learning. Many first-generation students cannot handle academic requirements and drop out, saddled with debt. Admissions counselors are well aware of the graduation rates of their schools, and they have a professional and moral obligation to reveal this information to potential students. They also should indicate evidenced-based programs and services, if any, that are available and that have resulted in higher graduation rates of students at risk of dropping out. Regrettably, this type of transparency does not exist on many campuses.

Let’s look at some low graduation statistics. Nationwide, colleges have four-year graduation rates below 30 percent, and some are even below 10 percent. For example, New York’s Long Island University has a four-year graduation rate of 8 percent at its Brooklyn campus. Yet, the state’s average is 55.1 percent for four-year private, not-for-profit colleges. Whether or not the students graduate, they still have loans that must be paid. We advocate that students avoid schools with graduation rates that are significantly below their state’s average. These low rates suggest that colleges take students’ money with the unashamed awareness that most of them will neither graduate nor complete their first two years successfully.

Exacerbating this problem is the “shell game” many college administrators play, in which they use Pell Grants to supplant institutional aid that they would otherwise have provided to financially needy students. These administrators then shift the funds to recruit wealthier students, offering them generous scholarships. Using poorer students’ Pell Grants as a source of supporting more advantaged students is an unscrupulous practice that further undermines low-income students’ efforts to complete their college education. Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst for the New America Foundation, notes that this is one of the reasons why even after extraordinary increases in Pell Grant funding, low-income students continue to shoulder heavier debt loads than ever before.

Furthermore, a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York indicates that student debt rose 12 percent to $1.08 trillion. Worse, the nation’s sharp rise in student debt is being driven mostly by Americans with poor credit and few resources. Almost half of student loan recipients are unable to make payments, and even older borrowers are defaulting at high rates, which can result in such hardships as garnishment of social security benefits. This ticking, financial time bomb not only discredits academe but also destroys the aspirations of students and their hard-working parents. After being aggressively recruited by colleges to pay their bills and after dropping out burdened with loan debt, students and their families find they were manipulated as pawns in a debt-transfer financed by tax dollars. We consider these outcomes to reflect some colleges’ uncaring and unethical policies, which are also bordering on illegal practices.

Yet, there is another choice. College administrators can use student tuition for student benefit by providing services and programs that have strong potential for increasing the academic success and the graduation rates of incoming students. To help first-generation students succeed in college, administrators and professors must realize that, according to the Southern Education Foundation, 51 percent of public school students nationwide (new majority) are from low-income families and that those who attempt a college education will need a teaching-learning context that is sensitive to their demography. Of vital importance is a support system that provides regular (required) access to a dedicated adviser with a small case load, a dedicated career and employment services staff member, and dedicated tutoring services. These types of support are key components of the highly successful City University of New York experiment, which helps a substantial number of students to graduate from community colleges, and comparable efforts can result in higher graduation rates at four-year colleges.

These outcomes are more likely to be realized when the federal and state governments provide support. Reacting to the debt-transfer game that some colleges play, a number of states have been changing their financial aid formulas to include graduation rates as part of the granting process. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education has already approved a new state financial aid distribution policy that increases financial awards when students meet certain credit milestones and decreases awards when students do not graduate in a timely manner. Other states that are developing comprehensive plans to increase college graduation rates include Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, and Tennessee. All states should support this direction to prevent poor students from being used as part of a bottom-line scheme. We believe when state governments and accreditation services tie graduation rates to financial aid, college administration and faculty will work more cohesively to support a caring and substantive learning environment for the at-risk students who are aggressively recruited.

Dr. Joseph Sanacore is a student advocate, researcher, and professor at Long Island University in Brookville, New York. 

Dr. Anthony Palumbo is a student advocate, researcher, essayist,  novelist  and educational historian

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