'The Journey Before Us'

Author describes her book on first-generation students.

January 15, 2020

First-generation students (those whose parents lack a college degree) can succeed in higher education, but they need support. Laura Nichols, an associate professor of sociology at Santa Clara University, makes the case in The Journey Before Us: First-Generation Pathways From Middle School to College (Rutgers University Press). The book is a mix of interviews with students and analysis of their stories.

Nichols responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: How did you find the first-generation students you interviewed?

A: Given the research that finds that academic tracking and inequities start early in students’ educational trajectories, I focused on aspiring first-generation college students from low-income families who attended a middle school that is part of a network that have as their mission “breaking the cycle of poverty through education.” The school, located in California, started preparing students for academic success early and worked to get students admitted to the best private and public high schools in the area and continued to support them in high school and college. I interviewed alumni of the school when they were young adults about their experiences in middle, high and post-high school graduation. I also analyzed data on the educational trajectories of all of the graduates of the school as well as national, state and school-level data.

Q: Some in higher education might not see the relevance of middle school to college-going. Can you explain why it matters?

A: Early on we are losing students who could be very successful college students and professionals in needed careers. The students I spoke with were very hardworking, driven, and did very well academically, but their trajectories were often interrupted, usually for nonacademic reasons. What emerged from the data was the need to focus on the longer educational trajectory of students, if colleges and states really want to increase their numbers of students who would be the first in their families to go to college.

Middle school students need structure, space and extra support when tackling rigorous curricula and are learning how to be students. Parents working low-income, unstable jobs with irregular hours in the service economy often cannot provide what students need, and they don’t have the financial resources to pay for tutoring or after-school programs or summer camps. Further, the schools that most aspiring first-generation students attend tend to be large public schools that have a high proportion of students from low-income families. Such schools usually don’t have enough advisers and teachers for the large number of students who need help with being college ready, applying to college and filling out complex financial aid applications.

Students who have a parent who went to college are more likely to be able to get help through their transitions to different schools and to make sure that they are taking the appropriate courses to be college eligible. I found that while parents of aspiring first-generation students are extremely supportive of and want their children to attend college (and this is backed up by national data), parents often don’t understand what is important in keeping their kids on track to a college degree such as college preparatory coursework, the role of Advanced Placement or honors courses, taking the ACT or SAT, etc. Even when students had a very supportive adviser, mentor or teacher in high school, once they graduated, it was assumed they were on their way to college because they had been accepted. But many students had to change their plans, typically because financially they could not figure out how to pay for school and continue to help their families with rent and other expenses. The transitions between schools and the first year at the new school mattered the most for the success of students in staying on the college-going path.

Q: You focus on transitions -- from middle school to high school and from high school to college. What can go wrong (and right) in those transitions?

A: I was able to talk to students who had good and bad transitions, and they revealed some main areas we can focus on to improve educational trajectories in the U.S. for all students. Students need opportunity and access to quality, inclusive schools and college preparatory curricula through their whole trajectory as well as access to people who are affirming of their ability to be on the path to college. If they moved from having that at one school and not another, students could fall off track. And students had to spend time at each new school making sure that they could find those who could help them navigate the new terrain to make sure they were getting what they needed to be able to ultimately apply to college. Students also needed stability at home, including the economic, emotional and physical well-being of their family members to be able to make school, and being a student, their main focus. When hardworking students had the benefit of attending schools that provided what they needed to be college eligible and this was combined with their families' stable housing and economic situation, they were able to graduate from college.

Q: What are the primary challenges of first-generation students in college?

A: I found that the challenges depended on the type of college that students attended. Most first-generation college students enroll in large, public two- and four-year colleges. Such schools often don’t have the advising staff to help students with choosing courses, majors and any financial aid snafus that might come up. Students could get off track, thinking that one bad grade meant that they weren’t “college material” or that they couldn’t complete their desired major. They often tried to figure all this out on their own.

The challenges at private, primarily residential colleges were a little different. First-generation students at such colleges are often a small percentage of the student body. Many first-generation students found the adjustment to such schools difficult and doubted their ability to succeed at such schools. They usually needed to find supportive staff and faculty who could help them with the culture shock [and] remind them that they belonged there and to access the resources that existed.

For students at both types of schools, rising tuition and fees, including books, meant that the majority worked long hours off-campus, and there was little job flexibility as their class schedules changed. The first-generation students I interviewed were also helping their families financially as well as with other needs. We really need to find ways to help students navigate work and going to school, especially when they first start working in high school or even earlier. And we need to create great schools where first-generation students live so they can manage their many responsibilities.

Q: What can colleges do to make first-generation students welcome and succeed?

A: There is great work, such as that by Anthony Jack, about what elite colleges can do to welcome and graduate more low-income and first-generation students. These include addressing cultural biases as well as consistently reminding students that they belong at the school, are welcome there and are as qualified as students who come from college-going families. The first-generation students in my study pointed to a number of other issues across the range of postsecondary paths. Students needed help navigating complex degree requirements, financial aid and how to continue school when there were setbacks. Their experiences also showed that we must do more to bolster our public two- and four-year colleges if we are to grow the completion rates of first-generation students.

At a time when we have increasing numbers of high school graduates going to college, we really need to think about students’ trajectories over the long haul. The experiences of first-generation students show us how we need to address issues in education beyond individual schools or types of schools for all of our students, first generation or not. We have designed the path to college to move students on rather than take the journey with them, and states and communities would do well to consider how we can imagine education more broadly and comprehensively.


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