Recent Supreme Court rulings in Fisher and Schuette, which challenged race-based affirmative action policies, have forced universities to consider new methods for achieving desirable levels of diversity without relying on race in admissions decisions. 

But while universities pay considerable attention to recruiting minority students, they frequently overlook the fact that most students of color also tend to be first-generation college attendees.

There is a distinct lack of conversation about what happens to first-generation students after they are admitted. They enter college at a clear disadvantage, since they cannot ask family members for help navigating the labyrinth that is higher education.

If we are spending so much of the national conversation on getting students of color in the door, why aren’t we also looking closely at what happens once they step foot on campus?

The Need for Additional Support

When first-generation students attend college, they face barriers that their peers will not experience. Unlike students from highly educated families, first-generation students have no one to give them advice on courses, housing, financial aid, time-management, extracurricular activities, and a whole list of other issues.

They have no one to rely on but themselves.

To make the problem worse, universities can be extremely alienating environments for first-generation students of color, as campuses have historically been spaces for affluent whites—and the most selective universities have not taken proactive steps to create more diverse campuses, even as demographics across the nation are rapidly changing.

Hence, low-income students, particularly those of color, frequently feel unwelcome, leading to feelings of isolation and alienation.

One representative example is Harry, a first-generation, low-income student, who told the Atlantic:

Never before had I truly felt such an extreme sense of estrangement and alienation. I quickly realized that although I may look the part, my cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds were vastly different from those of my predominantly white, affluent peers. I wanted to leave.

It’s no wonder that without a strong support system to guide them through the process, only 26 percent of first-generation students earn a bachelor’s degree within eight years, versus 68 percent for all other students.

According to TCF senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg, the correlation between wealth and academic achievement is much too strong. The outlook is worst for first generation students that are also low-income, as 89 percent fail to graduate after six years.

Such a dismal outlook should prompt us to ask whether colleges and universities are doing enough to make sure first-generation students have the proper resources to succeed.

How Universities Can Help

Some universities have come to the realization that first-generation students need additional support, especially during their first year, and have set up programs to aid students in the transition from high school to college.

Developmental summer bridge programs, designed to help high school students ease into their first year of college, have become standard at many universities. They provide “high-priority” students with a few preparatory courses while exposing them to university life before their fall semester.

One program worth emulating: the McNeill Academic Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After facing a potential ban on affirmative action, CU-Boulder developed an innovative admissions policy that provided class-based preferences to applicants. Because race and wealth track so closely in the United States, the program at Boulder actually increased racial diversity.

But Boulder didn’t stop with increasing its enrollment of students of color. It also created the McNeill Academic Program to support the needs of students from marginalized groups.

Under the CU-Boulder admissions policy, students admitted under their affirmative action policy, are automatically given access to the McNeill program. It provides students with academic and social assistance such as mentoring, tutoring, career services, financial resources, and so on.

Programs designed specifically for first-generation students are needed at more colleges and universities across the nation. Mentorship programs matching incoming students with higher level undergraduates or graduate students that are first generation students themselves, have shown to be quite successful. They can boost academic achievement, pave the way for skill development, and create a support network for students.

Next Steps

Not only do universities need to create admission policies that achieve diverse campuses, but they also must discover how to provide resources to the students who need it most.

The graduation gap between students from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds is too pronounced. But it cannot and will not shrink unless universities take action to assist the students most at risk of not graduating.

With such favorable outcomes, transition and mentorship programs are crucial, as they provide students with the necessary support to be academically successful enough to graduate.

Without this necessary support, institutions of higher education will continue to fail our most promising and most vulnerable students.