When Nijay Williams entered college last fall as a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant, he was—despite being admitted to the school—academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Like many first-generation students, he enrolled in a medium-sized state university many of his high school peers were also attending, received a Pell grant, and took out some small federal loans to cover other costs. Given the high price of room and board and the proximity of the school to his family, he opted to live at home and worked between 30 and 40 hours a week while taking a full class schedule.  

What Williams didn’t realize about his school—Tennessee State University—was its frighteningly low graduation rate: a mere 29 percent for its first-generation students. At the end of his first year, Williams lost his Pell Grant of over $5,000 after narrowly missing the 2.0 GPA cut-off, making it impossible for him to continue paying for school.

"I wanted two degrees; that’s what I saw myself doing," he said. "My mom stopped school in the ninth grade; my dad stopped in the fourth grade … It makes it harder for me, [and] most of the people I graduated with are not in college, but that’s what I see myself doing; I want to go to college. I just want to have a degree."

"It bothers me every day that I’m not in school—every day," he said. He is currently working multiple jobs and trying to enroll in a community college nearby.

Williams represents a large and growing group of Americans: first-generation college students who enter school unprepared or behind. To make matters worse, these schools are ill-equipped to graduate these students—young adults who face specific challenges and obstacles. They typically carry financial burdens that outweigh those of their peers, are more likely to work while attending school, and often require significant academic remediation.

Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school. This stems from many issues. Students from low-income backgrounds often attend high schools without rigorous college-prep tracks, meaning their access to good information on higher education may be inadequate. Many of them are also significantly behind academically, which stymies them from applying or being accepted to certain schools. And to make matters worse, thousands of colleges across the country lack resources or programs earmarked for low-income or first generation students. That means that, while many schools enroll these students, few are equipped to actually graduate them.

Matt Rubinoff directs I’m First, a nonprofit launched last October to reach out to this specific population of students. He hopes to distribute this information and help prospective college-goers find the best post-secondary fit. And while Rubinoff believes there are a good number of four-year schools that truly care about these students and set aside significant resources and programs for them, he says that number isn’t high enough.

"It’s not only the selective and elite institutions that provide those opportunities for a small subset of this population," he said, adding that a majority of first-generation undergraduates tend toward options such as online programs, two-year colleges, and commuter state schools. "Unfortunately, there tends to be a lack of information and support to help students think bigger and broader."

Despite this conundrum, many students are still drawn to these institutions—and two-year schools in particular. Anecdotally, as a former high school teacher, I saw students choose familiar, cheaper options year after year. In lieu of skipping out on higher education altogether, they opted for community colleges or state schools with low bars for admittance.

"They underestimate themselves when selecting a university," said Dave Jarrat, a marketing executive for Inside Track, a for-profit organization that specializes in coaching low-income students and supporting colleges in order to help students thrive. "The reality of it is that a lot of low-income kids could be going to elite universities on a full ride and don’t even realize it."

"[Many students] are coming from a situation where no one around them has the experience of successfully completing higher ed, so they’re coming in questioning themselves and [their] college worthiness," Jarrat continued. That helps explain why, as I’m First’s Rubinoff indicated, the schools to which these students end up resorting can end up being some of the poorest matches for them. Williams' enrollment at Tennessee State University offers one example of this dilemma. Just a few hours down the road in Knoxville, the University of Tennessee graduates approximately 54 percent of its first-generation students, a certain improvement but still nearly 15 percent lower than its overall graduation rate.* Finding accurate rates for many schools is challenging, unless the rates are particularly noteworthy. (For example, Depaul University in Chicago has a page devoted to this data, noting that 82 percent of its first-generation students receiving support graduated within six years.)

Still, the University of Tennessee deserves credit for being transparent. Many large institutions keep this kind of data secret—or at least make it incredibly difficult to find. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for instance, admits only that the graduation rate for its first-generation pupils is "much lower" than its the percentage of all students who graduate within four years (81 percent).

It’s actually quite difficult to find reliable statistics on the issue for many schools. Higher education institutions are, under federal law, required to report graduation rates,  but these reports typically only include Pell recipient numbers—not necessarily rates specific to first-graduation students. Other initiatives fail to break down the data, too. Imagine how intimidating it can be for prospective students unfamiliar with the complexities of higher education to navigate this kind of information and then identify which schools are the best fit.

It was this dearth of information that prompted the launch of I’m First in 2013, originally as an arm of its umbrella organization, the Center For Student Opportunity. "If we can help to direct students to more of these types of campuses and help [students] to understand them to be realistic and accessible places, have them apply to these schools at greater frequency and ultimately get in and enroll, we’re going to … raise the batting average," Rubinoff said, citing a variety of colleges ranging from large state institutions to smaller private schools.

Chelsea Jones, who now directs student programming at I’m First, was a first-generation college student at Howard. Like other students new to the intimidating higher-education world, she often struggled on her path to college. "There wasn’t really a college bound culture [at my high school," she said. "I wanted to go to college but I didn’t really know the process." Jones became involved with a college-access program through Princeton University in high school. Now, she attributes much of her understanding of college to that: "[But] once I got to campus, it was a completely different ball game that no one really prepared me for."

She was fortunate, though. Howard, a well-regarded historically black college, had an array of resources for its first-generation students, including matching kids with counselors, connecting first-generation students to one another, and TRIO, a national program that supported 200 students on Howard’s campus. Still, Jones represents a small percentage of first-generation students who are able to gain entry into more elite universities, which are often known for robust financial aid packages and remarkably high graduation rates for first-generation students. (Harvard, for example, boasts a six-year graduation rate for underrepresented minority groups of 98 percent.)

Christian Vazquez, a first-generation Yale graduate, is another exception, his success story setting him far apart from students such as Williams. "There’s a lot of support at Yale, to an extent, after a while, there’s too much support," he said, half-joking about the myriad resources available at the school. Students are placed in small cohorts with counselors (trained seniors on campus); they have access to cultural and ethnic affinity groups, tutoring centers and also have a summer orientation specifically for first-generation students (the latter being one of the most common programs for students).

"Our support structure was more like: 'You are going to get through Yale; you are going to do well,'" he said, hinting at mentors, staff, and professors who all provided significant support for students who lacked confidence about "belonging" at such a high-caliber institution.

LaTrya Gordon, a sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, attributes much of her success not only to the Bridges To Belmont program for first-generation students, but also to a mentor who has been able to impart wisdom and belief in her. This has been paramount to her success.

"[My mentor] really, really cares, she’s not doing this because it’s her job; she’s doing it because she really cares about me," LaTrya Gordon said. She works with a Kipp Through College mentor, a college access and persistence initiative through the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school network. "And that’s what I love the most … it’s not like they get you to college and then they leave you."

Despite her scholarship, Gordon says she "felt cheated" when she got to Belmont, realizing how far behind she was academically. She also struggled with the typical social and cultural adjustments faced by many college newcomers. Being black in a predominantly white school didn’t help, either.

"You see that, you can’t ignore it," she said, emphasizing that she is still "very grateful" for her scholarship.

Still, by sticking in school and committing to graduation, these students are in many ways in the minority. Many students, like Williams, unfortunately miss out on scant resources meant to help boost their success, ultimately making the path to college—and college itself—even more daunting.

"I wish there had been a college class that was required in high school, so you could know what to expect in college and what you’re going to be going through," Williams said. He wanted more support, and "somebody that actually cared, somebody to see me through."


* This post originally stated that the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, graduates just 16 percent of its first-generation students. We regret the error.