Lucas Dean: First generation students, a minority

Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 4:31pm

As a high school student, when I began my college application process, I knew I was part of a larger group. So many people around me were first-generation college students, and we often struggled together. Upon my acceptance to the University of Michigan, that large group quickly evaporated. The people around me were suddenly from long lines of college graduates, and I began to feel out of place. My new found friends commented on what an oddity I was, braving the big scary school without a clue what I was getting into.

According to the University’s own statistics, only 10.6 percent of the students in 2013 were first generation, of which nearly half reported their parents had actually still attended some college but received no degree. Other top universities also have first-generation student populations of less than 20 percent. In fact, according to The New York Times, “The proportion of freshmen at elite campuses who are first generation — 11 percent Dartmouth, 12 percent at Princeton, 14 percent at Yale, 15 percent at Amherst, 16 percent at Cornell, 17 percent at Brown — nearly matches that of their low-income Pell grant recipients.”

The fact that these numbers have reached one-fifth of the national average might tell a tale of a deeper problem. These statistics show that there are clearly some more obstacles keeping the majority of these students out of universities. According to a 2010 study by the United States Department of Education, 50 percent of college students were first generation, defined as students whose parents had never attended a postsecondary school. That is, never pursued an education beyond high school.

As a first-generation student, the challenges of pursuing a higher education are already difficult as it is. Now, throw in the most prestigious public institutions of learning in the country and make these students a minority group, and it is not doing anything to help the situation. The University of Michigan must take steps in the right direction and act as an example for other top colleges to follow.

In recent years, the University has made such steps, especially with the introduction of both the HAIL Scholarship and the Go Blue Guarantee, which was introduced last year. These scholarships provide financial help to in-state students who come from diverse backgrounds and are not able to pay their own way without taking on massive student debt.

As a first-generation student and someone who finished high school and applied to college as a homeless student, I can sympathize with the struggles involved. There are no parents to ask for college advice and often no older siblings to ask either. If you are lucky, you might have gone to a big school or had an amazing college counselor to work with. If you were like me, you were homeschooled until high school, where your graduating class was 26 students and neither your parents nor your school was much help. Some parents still think that today's world is the same one they grew up in half a century ago when you did not need a college education to be successful; you simply had to work hard. Nobody seems to understand the questions you might have or the anxiety one might feel. The people around you will often hold a higher expectation of you then you have been accustomed to.

Thankfully, the University has recently done good work looking out for their extreme minority of such students. Programs like Comprehensive Studies Program and Summer Bridge Scholars Program give students a chance to acclimate themselves to college life before being thrown into the bumbling confusion that is freshman year. These programs offer students a continued support network throughout their college experience, including specialized teachers, GSIs and small class sizes. Being placed among a group of students who are in a similar position as your own does wonders to help with the adjustment that is needed, though, in my personal experience, it is not always the best route to take for yourself.

The federal government, too, has implemented many programs throughout the country to help students like me. I had the pleasure and honor of working with a group called TRIO Pre-College during my college search and application adventures. They work with students in situations similar to mine to help waive application fees, proofread essays and even take students on campus tours. I am glad to have been assisted by them and look forward to helping programs like theirs in the future any way I can. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to hold the proud title of a Wolverine.

There is still a long way to go to make sure all students feel welcome at our university, and all colleges for that matter, but progress and positive change are being made. This situation often goes unnoticed and underappreciated, and I hope I am able to  shed some light on the subject for all to gain at least a simple understanding.

Lucas Dean can be reached at lbdean@umich.edu