Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that pursuing a college education is not just about getting accepted and enrolling in a college. First-generation and low-income college students were burdened with the struggle to pay expensive college fees for a virtual education while being separated from on-campus resources and in-person support from students and faculty. For first-generation and low-income college students, being accepted into a college is a major accomplishment that opens the door to numerous possibilities, such as having higher average salaries and healthier lifestyles. However, there needs to be more support for first-generation and low-income students throughout college, not just to the acceptance letter, for them to enjoy the benefits of obtaining a college degree.
Barriers to Student Success:
Despite the progress, there are still many difficulties for first-generation and low-income college students after they complete their college applications and are admitted to an institution. For instance, first-generation and low-income students:
1. Miss out on financial aid they are eligible for.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only around 65% of high school seniors complete a FAFSA each year, and first-generation and low-income students are less likely to complete an application. By not filling out the FAFSA, first-generation and low-income students are missing out on financial aid that can help them pay for and pursue higher education.
2. Receive inadequate support with understanding financial aid offers.
A study by New America and uAspire found that in financial aid offer letters, many colleges use inconsistent terminology and jargon, do not include information on the cost that the institution is charging, and group different types of financial aid, like grants, Federal Work-Study, and loans together. These practices make it difficult for students to understand and compare aid offers when deciding on which school best suits their financial needs and increases the chance of a student attending a school based on inaccurate financial information. For instance, a student may expect to receive Federal Work-Study as a lump sum grant if it is grouped with grants on the offer letter.
3. Experience greater likelihood of not completing postsecondary education.
First-generation students are more likely to leave postsecondary education without earning a postsecondary credential compared to students whose parents had earned a bachelor’s degree according to a study by the NCES. Similarly, low-income students are more likely to leave a two-year or four-year institution before receiving a degree. Dropping out without completing the degree can have serious financial impacts for students because they may be required to pay back grants and loans for attending college without reaping the benefits of earning their degree.
4. Have a lack of mentors and professional networks.
First-generation college students tend to lack guidance about college and career development from family members and have to build a professional network from scratch, adding pressure to students on top of managing academic coursework.
How We Can Better Support First-Generation and Low-Income Students:
1. Organize mentorship programs during high school and college.
Since first-generation students may lack mentors who can advise them on the college process and career development, schools should organize a mentorship program and make sure all students have a mentor they can trust and ask questions to anytime, such as alumni, faculty members, or even experienced upperclassmen. Mentors can also introduce students to important resources and help them make smart decisions about their future.
2. Provide more informational workshops about financial aid early and regularly.
First-generation and low-income students may not be aware of all the financial aid opportunities that are available to help them afford college. To address this, schools should host informational workshops starting before students apply for college on how to qualify and apply for financial aid. Some topics schools should mention include:
a. Understanding the cost of college
b. How to estimate financial aid and how to complete the FAFSA
c. The types of Federal Aid (including their differences and requirements)
d. Where to find and how to apply for scholarships and grants
e. When to take out loans and how to be a smart borrower (including the types of loans, how much money to borrow, and repayment plans)
3. Standardize and improve transparency of financial aid offer letters
On top of ensuring first-generation and low-income students are aware of the financial aid options available, colleges should make it easier for students to interpret the financial aid offers they are receiving. Colleges should follow standardized templates and terminology, which helps students compare different offer letters. The U.S. Department of Education provided suggested templates for schools to follow, and research from New America suggests that colleges should always include the cost of attendance, distinguish between grants and loans, provide the net price calculation, and state the next steps for the student in the offer letter.
4. Improve accessibility and increase awareness of school resources.
Many colleges already have resources available for first-generation and low-income students, but not all students are aware they exist. Thus, schools should make a greater effort to ensure students know where to find help if they need it. For instance, schools can introduce all campus resources during orientation, provide a list of resources in dorm buildings and classrooms, and list the resources on the school website. Some of these resources may include the career center, alumni center and network, the financial aid office, and any organization that supports first-generation and low-income students. Schools should also not assume every student will receive guidance on essential career development skills, such as how to write a resume and cover letter, and offer accessible presentations on career development skills that every student can attend, such as through the career center or at orientation.
First-generation and low-income students overcome many barriers in the process of applying and being accepted into colleges, but their struggles do not stop there. More can be done to ensure that these students succeed throughout college and obtain their degree, opening the door to more opportunities and a greater chance of financial stability.
Joleen Chiu is an Undergraduate Student at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Mathematics and Economics. She is a current Virtual Student Federal Service intern working on the Higher Education Financial Decision-Making project under Federal Student Aid.