On May 23, 2021, I became the first in my family to graduate from college. However, as a low-income and first generation Latina, this was no easy task for me nor my family. From the very beginning, I knew that because my parents did not even finish high school, I would have to navigate my college education on my own. As a first time student, everything from choosing classes and navigating financial aid to finding housing can be very difficult and affect student success and persistence in college. I was fortunate enough to have the support of the TRIO Student Support Services Program (SSSP) to assist with any barriers that I faced as a first generation college student.

College access and success programs like TRIO’s SSSP provide significant and necessary contributions to the goal of improving higher education attainment for students from underrepresented groups. However, these support services are not accessible to everyone and should be expanded to better serve the first generation and low-income (FGLI) community.

Challenges for FGLI Students in Higher Education

While the challenges FGLI students face in seeking a college degree are well known to most progressives, they are worth repeating. According to Department of Education survey data, in the United States, 46.6 percent of all high school students come from parents without a college degree, yet first-generation students only make up 34.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded. Due to the financial, academic, and social challenges that come with being first-generation and low-income, first-generation students were nearly four times more likely to leave higher education after the first year than students who had neither of these risk factors.

Furthermore, FGLI students are more likely to work more than twenty hours a week, due to their inability to afford college, than students who are neither low-income nor first-generation. They are also less likely to be academically prepared for college and lack the navigational capital to seek support from their institutions. Lastly, FGLI students struggle to integrate socially at their universities, because they are less likely to be engaged in the academic and social experiences that increase success in college, such as studying in groups, interacting with faculty and other students, participating in extracurricular activities, and using support services. All of these factors directly impact FGLI student performance in college and explain why only 34 percent of low-income, first-generation students earned bachelor’s degrees in six years compared to 66 percent of their peers.

My own experience with the TRIO SSS program demonstrates how federally supported programs can directly address these risk factors and provide the kind of academic, social, and financial support systems that FGLI students lack when they enter college.

My Experience with the TRIO SSSP

At Brandeis University, the TRIO SSS program provided the support necessary for overcoming many obstacles that may have impeded my transition to college. After being recruited the summer prior to my freshman year, I was matched with an upperclassman peer mentor and assigned an academic advisor who would assist me for all four years of my college education. My peer mentor was also a Latina FGLI student. Having a mentor who was not only an upperclassman but who also came from a similar background as me was very comforting and gave me a sense of belonging at Brandeis.

While my peer mentor provided me with advice on college life, my academic advisor, also a former SSSP participant, provided me with academic support and helped me solve any issues with my financial aid. When my family and I were facing financial hardships after Hurricane Harvey, my advisor connected me with the financial aid office and assisted me in seeking additional funding so that I could stay in school. I was able to meet with my academic advisor at least once a month for academic advising. She helped me register for classes every term, assisted me with study abroad applications, helped me create a graduation plan, and referred me to different offices on campus that I didn’t even know existed.

For many people in my cohort, being low-income required managing one to two jobs while being a full-time student, so we had an entire lesson on time management and how to balance school and work.

In order to facilitate a smooth transition to college, I was also enrolled in a community learning class during my first semester. In this discussion-based course, I learned more about financial literacy, college essay writing, and the different offices on campus alongside my SSSP cohort. We also touched on topics that many of us were experiencing as first generation and low income students. For example, I learned that I wasn’t alone in experiencing imposter syndrome, and we talked about ways to overcome feeling like we don’t belong at a predominantly white institution as FGLI and minority students. For many people in my cohort, being low-income required managing one to two jobs while being a full-time student, so we had an entire lesson on time management and how to balance school and work. We also learned the importance of asking for help and using all of the resources available to us on campus such as professors, the writing center, and academic services. The biggest lesson I learned was that I would have to work much harder than my non-first-generation peers to be successful in college.

TRIO: Making the Difference for FGLI Students

There’s a long history of SSSP helping students like me: the TRIO Student Support Services Program was authorized by the Higher Education Act of 1965, originally as Special Services for Disadvantaged Students. The goals of the SSS program are to increase rates of college persistence, graduation, and transfer from two-year to four-year institutions for eligible students and to foster an institutional climate that supports the success of low-income students, first-generation students, and individuals with disabilities. The SSS program has been very effective for the 200,000 FGLI students nationwide that it serves every year. Findings from a 2019 U.S. Department of Education report on SSSP student outcomes revealed that SSSP participants demonstrated higher rates of persistence, credit accrual, and completion than nonparticipants.

While SSSP helped me and many students before me persist through college, the number of spots for this program vary by school and are often limited; most often, a FGLI student must navigate college on their own. In my role as a post-secondary persistence coordinator with Houston non-profit Momentum Education, I have witnessed firsthand the effects of being a FGLI student without any support system at your institution. I mentored thirty students at various four-year universities as they entered their first year of college during a pandemic. During our monthly check-ins, I noticed a vast difference in student success and persistence between students who were enrolled in some sort of FGLI student support program and those who weren’t. For the most part, the check-ins I had with my students who were enrolled in a FGLI specific program consisted of college skills like applying for internships, speaking with professionals/professors, and choosing a major. In contrast, the students who were not enrolled in a FGLI student support program asked questions about how to afford college, balance school and work, and seek counseling services on campus. I realized that, although they were all in their first year of college, the level of support they received during this transition determined their success throughout college.

Investing in FGLI Support Services

Attempts to close the degree attainment gap have increased college accessibility, creating a surge of first generation and low income students entering college. As FGLI students enter uncharted territory for themselves and their families, we must look beyond college accessibility and invest more in support services that will allow these students to succeed in college. The kind of support students receive from TRIO is essential and has proven to be effective in improving college completion; however, it serves less than 5 percent of the nation’s total population of low-income and first-generation college students. A 2016 Department of Education report on SSSP revealed that, despite the growing number of FGLI students, the number of students that SSSP can serve has failed to keep up with demand, even decreasing from 197,407 in 2009–2010 to 196,588 in 2013–2014. Throughout those same years, the total SSS program funding also decreased by over $2.3 million. As mentioned in an oral statement by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the American Families Plan budget proposed increases for TRIO to help ensure underserved students succeed in and graduate from college. With greater federal investment, TRIO programs like SSSP would be able to better serve more FGLI students and, consequently, improve college access and completion for more doubly disadvantaged students.