We Must Listen to First-Generation College Students' Perspectives on Education

We Must Listen to First-Generation College Students' Perspectives on Education

For thousands of students in the United States, a college degree represents the realization of the American dream. It's supposed to be a cycle-breaker for low-income families and provide upward economic and social mobility. But even though college entrance rates have risen, some students still struggle, and students who are the first in their families to go to college often are woefully unprepared by the K-12 education they have received.

While there is great research and data out there on how to increase college completion rates and support students, I could find nothing from the primary source — first-generation college students reflecting on their K-12 experiences and how prepared they were, or weren't, for college. 
That's why Students for Education Reform conducted a first-of-its-kind national poll (29 pages, PDF) surveying a representative national sample of a thousand first-generation college students. Through this process we learned a ton.
Overall, first-generation students said they felt unprepared for college. More than 56 percent of students who enter a two-year university have to begin by taking remedial courses covering material they should have learned in high school. They burn through financial aid, making no credit-hour progress toward graduation, and end up dropping out without a degree and without the chance to move up. This is the fault of K-12 systems that have never done right by low-income kids who, if they matriculated, would be the first in their family to attend college.

On a related note, 65 percent of the students we surveyed said that students should not have to pay for remedial courses in college. These include students like Cindy Contreras, a first-year student at Normandale Community College, just outside the Twin Cities, who has had to extend her time at Normandale by an extra year to take remedial courses in subjects she excelled in during high school. Cindy testified at the state capitol about her experience with remedial courses and worked with other students in Minnesota to demand that the state be held accountable for sending high school graduates to college unprepared. The students' recommendations for improvement were incorporated into legislation that Governor Mark Dayton recently signed into law.

The first-generation college students surveyed also had several recommendations about what could help them and their peers succeed in college. A majority of students like Cindy said they wanted a more robust life-skills curriculum in high school that would help them succeed in the college application process and job market. Financial literacy (61 percent), job interviewing (56 percent), résumé building (54 percent), and stress management (52 percent) were at the top of the list of skills first-generation college students wished they had.

On top of these coursework-related recommendations, it was clear from our poll that students wanted access to better schools than the ones they were zoned to. Seventy-five percent of survey respondents supported the idea of "school choice," or the ability to choose a school other than the one they were assigned to. Many of them (44 percent) said they would have chosen a different high school had they been allowed to. The top reasons for wanting school choice were that students sought a school environment that was safer (12 percent), was more focused on academics (27 percent), and had better and more caring teachers and staff (23 percent).

Students also provided information about how systematic discipline and safety problems within their school buildings hampered their ability to succeed. One in four students, for example, reported that they did not feel safe in school, and nearly one in three reported they did not find their school to be an emotionally safe or inclusive place. These indicators are often swept under the rug in favor of achievement data, but school environment plays a critical role in student success.

School environment doesn't stop with safety; it also includes how discipline is handled, in the classroom and beyond. Among the public school students who were severely disciplined in high school, a large majority found it difficult to achieve success in college. Most of those who experienced harsh discipline were suspended for non-violent offenses, and more than a third of suspended students received no other intervention — for instance, a warning or alternative discipline measure — prior to their suspension.

Take Brenda Contreras, a rising senior at Sacramento State who attended public schools in Richmond, in the Bay Area. She was suspended in third grade for finger painting and watched as her peers, one by one, dropped out of school over the years following similar demoralizing responses from school administration to non-violent — and often frivolous — classroom offenses. By the time Brenda graduated from high school, she knew more students who had dropped out than received their diploma.

Young people are our future, and the biggest stakeholders when it comes to their own education. We must listen to their perspectives if we are to craft policies that actually help them succeed — especially those who face unique challenges in getting to and through college. Listening to student voices is the critical first step toward creating a better, more inclusive school system.

Alexis Morin is co-founder and executive director of Students for Education Reform.

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December 27, 2019