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.