Fixing First Generation Students, Fixing Colleges

On the one hand, I so appreciate this essay on a forthcoming study [likely behind a paywall for those without access to an academic library] showing that First Generation college students are likely to be more successful if someone simply explains how they might find the information that they need to navigate college.

I especially appreciate that the authors explicitly call out the fact that reluctance to talk about class differences contributes to the challenges faced by First Generation students.

Many first-generation students “struggle to navigate the middle-class culture of higher education, learn the ‘rules of the game,’ and take advantage of college resources,” they write. And this becomes more of a problem when colleges don’t talk about the class advantages and disadvantages of different groups of students. “Because U.S. colleges and universities seldom acknowledge how social class can affect students’ educational experiences, many first-generation students lack insight about why they are struggling and do not understand how students ‘like them’ can improve.”

On the other hand, the essay (and perhaps the article) continues to frame this as being about fixing the First Generation students, even while the intervention was a change in how the college worked with the students.

Their thesis — that a relatively modest intervention could have a big impact — was based on the view that first-generation students may be most lacking not in potential but in savvy about how to deal with the issues that face most college students. They cite past research by several authors to show that this is the gap that must be narrowed to close the achievement gap.

This is not a gap that is located within students.   This is a gap solidly grounded in class advantages.   Any student who succeeds in college does so because they have basic information about navigating the complex institutional norms of a college campus, career selection, and degree completion.

I will be more hopeful when articles like this stop talking about “gaps” that position First Generation students as lower than other students and start instead talking about how success in college has been available only to those with  access to  “essential but hidden information” that middle class families have long held to themselves and that universities haven’t simply taught.

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2 thoughts on “Fixing First Generation Students, Fixing Colleges

  1. Chris February 18, 2014 / 12:18 pm

    I read (via David Stovall) that Gloria Ladson-Billings coined the phrase “education debt” as a replacement for “achievement gap,” noting that the latter puts the onus on the student to achieve, while the former places the onus on the institutions to pay down the debt owed to historically disadvantaged students. That’s now a phrase I try to use and educate people on, as it shifts our mindset to placing more of the responsibility on the system to change, not on the student.

    • janevangalen February 18, 2014 / 12:48 pm

      Thanks Chris. This sense of our obligation to open what has been closed as a means of addressing long standing debt is compelling.

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