The thing about poverty and race in a rich country like the U.S. is that the poor and the vulnerable seldom disclose their bad situations to anyone. This is often out of embarrassment or pride, because those who are poor or of color do not want to be the living embodiment of a racial or poor-person stereotype. That was certainly the case for me. It took deciding to meet with Pitt’s ombudsman to work out my billing issues before I had enough aid to cover the cost of food, books, and rent.
But to do this, I had to heed social psychologist Claude Steele’s advice in Young, Gifted, and Black, and learn from people whom I would otherwise refuse to trust, because many “can feel mistrust and apprehension in” predicaments similar to my own. After years of being in school with authorities who practiced tough love, and affluent classmates who frequently made light of my poverty, my instinct was to keep quiet about my troubles. I only reached out because I knew $10 would not feed me for the entire month of November. But I was relatively lucky there as well. Many first-generation students don’t get the support they need and a good number drop out. According to the Pell Institute, only between 11 and 25 percent of all first-generation students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling in college, with a dropout rate of between 38 and 47 percent.
Ultimately, four years of pursuing my bachelor’s in history, with minors in both mathematics and black studies, cost about $52,000 by the time I finished up at the University of Pittsburgh in 1991. I borrowed $13,000 in student loans, made $14,000 at a variety of jobs that covered my necessities, and had $15,000 in academic-scholarship money. My mother and father kicked in just $1,400 total, mostly during my first three semesters.
But it wasn’t just the tuition assistance that got me through; forming bonds with older students, being proactive in getting the help I needed, and being able to compartmentalize my academic, social, work, and familial obligations made me a successful student. Today, millions of first-generation students often enter college not knowing where to turn for help. Many times, first-generation students these days do not even know that they need help. Some public colleges and universities offer first-year experience programs to help first-generation students navigate the personal, professional, and academic aspects of their college experience.
Many higher-education institutions, however, either do not have such programs, or the programs themselves are understaffed, underfunded, and underdeveloped. Many institutions do not provide enough counselors in the form of psychologists and social workers to help first-generation students work through issues around familial obligations, financial aid beyond tuition, campus climate, and interpersonal development. Few programs provide opportunities for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate peers to serve as mentors throughout a student’s higher-education experience. Where opportunities do exist, the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity among college staff and faculty can also be a barrier, as first-generation students frequently find themselves working with potential mentors with little understanding of the challenges they face.
Though examples of success abound, the availability of programs for first-generation students even today is haphazard, and would require state-level and collaborative efforts beyond the appropriations of a Hillary Clinton administration and a bipartisan Congress to address.