When Chris was accepted into the Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, he didn’t think of himself as a first-generation college student. Acknowledging his first-generation identity and how it influenced his path came years later, but the label assigned by his college is only a part of Chris’s individual story.
His parents, both Vietnamese refugees who had not gone to college, raised him in south Florida. Chris, who did not want to use his last name, knew he’d earned a golden admission ticket, but he didn’t know that getting in was only half the struggle. He hadn’t considered how his parents’ lack of higher education might influence his own college studies. “I did homework with my classmates for the first time and I found myself getting defensive about what little knowledge of college I had coming in,” Chris said, describing the anxiety and distress he experienced studying, taking tests, and meeting classmates. “I was playing pretend the moment I had my first meaningful conversation with someone, and I consequently felt lost the next year and a half.”
More schools are focusing on supporting students like Chris. But in their goal to increase access to higher education, schools label young people in ways that isolate rather than include them—particularly where colleges and the support systems they develop for these students automatically equate being first generation with being low income, as many studies suggest.
As a sociologist, Celine-Marie Pascale, a professor and the associate dean for undergraduate studies at American University, where I also teach, is concerned with the language and attitudes that develop around culture, knowledge, and power. When Pascale was a first-generation graduate student, 17 years after earning her undergraduate degree, she was awarded a scholarship and asked to visit donors. “I was incredibly grateful, of course; I could not have gone to school without it. But I became weary of going to events and representing the poor student they were saving. It felt demeaning,” she said.
The labels aren’t always intentional, and they aren’t always bad. Colleges anticipate and define student categories—like low-income, first-generation, and minority—mostly based on voluntary Common Application data provided before a student ever arrives on campus. While students aren’t required to disclose their parents’ educational backgrounds—and many don’t—self-identified first-generation students are often linked to or assumed to have economic disadvantage. Students may also choose not to disclose their first-generation status; professors and classmates won’t know unless they claim the label. But labels that assume first-generation always correlates with low-income may get in the way of the more important conversation of how individuals relate to their college community and larger culture and foster feelings of resentment.
Does it matter if first-generation students are also low-income? What about a first-generation student of color who comes from a family of means? How many labels are necessary to understand first-generation students’ needs? Labeling theory has been well established in multiple disciplines, and when applied to the classroom, teacher expectations may influence student performance. If a teacher lowers standards because he assumes a student needs the accommodation, the student’s true potential won’t be measured. A label may unintentionally shape a teacher’s reaction, meaning she may assume a certain behavior results from the label rather than the individual. At a critical juncture in a college student’s cognitive development, the combination of labels may hinder more than help.
Ben Galina, a teaching fellow at Vanderbilt University, argued in an essay that some first-generation students may resist the first-generation label, especially if it’s associated with being low-income. “Negative stereotypes about socially marginalized groups hold that any lack of socioeconomic success may be attributed to internal deficits rather than social, historical, or situational injustices,” he wrote. Focusing on achievement may lead to segregation from their families. Many unconsciously underachieve to remedy the isolation. Even if first-generation students overcome the “stereotype threat,” they may experience imposter syndrome when they arrive on campus and choose to downplay the difficult path to admission in order to blend with students who are not the first in their families to go to college. Often, first-generation students arrive on campus with doubts about their ability to achieve, even when their test scores, grades, and backgrounds don’t support their worries. But the anxiety of failing may feed the cycle. Believing they don’t belong and can’t fit in with their peers may morph the fear into a reality.
Yet there’s a danger in abandoning the concept of a first-generation student altogether. The label can be both empowering and unifying, as many of these students experience similar challenges and need similar resilience to face them. Labeling students allows schools to identify and deliver targeted resources. Schools that anticipate what this population shares and understand how to support first-generation students may increase retention rates, but only if they can reach the students where they are and persuade them to accept the help. Regardless of where first-generation students arrive, and regardless of the scholarship money they may have received for their education, they often leave because they aren’t prepared, feel isolated from their peers, aren’t aware of available resources, or move back home to support their families.
Like their peers, many first-generation students want to make their parents and communities proud, but leaving for college can often seem like a rejection of their family’s own path. “When students and faculty pick up the label of being first -generation, they often worry about disloyalty to their families—that somehow going to college means they’re saying their parents’ lives were inadequate,” Pascale said. Like myself, Pascale is a first-generation student turned first-generation faculty member. “We become complicit with a larger cultural narrative. When you add a low-income piece, it hits even harder,” she said.
In her research, Pascale agrees with Galina about the risks of the label: “Until we have honest conversations about class, and take responsibility for the inequality that our economy systematically generates, the label of ‘first generation’ is going to be fraught.” Research in labeling theory suggests that damage to a student’s potential occurs when the label becomes the limited lens. Labels may shape attitudes and reveal a narrower view of the individual. Sometimes simply labeling a student by her race or income or class may alter her actual achievement. If classification within the classroom lowers teacher expectations, student performance may actually decrease.
In an op-ed published in Inside Higher Ed earlier this year, Byron P. White, the chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University, wrote, “As long as being a person of color or of modest economic means, or the child of parents who did not go to college, is deemed to be, first and foremost, an indicator of potential failure, the integrity of our proclaimed expectation of success is undermined.” The “deficit-laden labels,” as he called them, limit deeper conversations about the assets—like persistence, independence, and resilience—that first-generation students bring to campus. But can a mere shifting of words create a ripple effect throughout higher education?
Whether the label helps or hurts, students benefit from authentic conversations about class in and out of classrooms that may not offer easy answers. Perhaps the questions matter more than any resolution. “Any label cuts both ways,” Pascale said. “There’s a process of identification that can be empowering; it also can be marginalizing.” Honest and open talks about economic justice may serve students more than labels. It’s possible that both can exist and in the same place.
And even if a student proudly claims to be first-generation, low-income, the label may provide a useful signal but it isn’t a complete story. “We live in a society that makes us uncomfortable if we can’t easily identify labels for the person we are speaking to, especially with gender and race. We’re always sorting,” Pascale said. “With class, the system works by erasure. You can’t always tell someone’s socioeconomic status when you meet them. It disarms our normal way of operating and enables us to personalize, minimize, or deny economic inequality.”
While assuming that first-generation students are low-income can foster negative stereotypes and lead to disillusionment among students, it is still true that many first-generation students are low-income and can benefit from financial and other assistance.
In his experience as a scholarship student, Chris said, “I don't think ‘first-generation’ should necessarily be linked with ‘low-income,’ since within both there are so many different communities, and we can't expect all of those subgroups to overlap.” But he does see that from a practical perspective, a campus office supporting one need might be just as equipped to meet another. A comprehensive approach to course scheduling, financial aid, career development, and social adjustment streamlines support and may help eliminate frustration and failure before it builds.
In “Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students,” senior scholars at the Pell Institute found that after six years of enrolling in college, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students nationwide had earned bachelor’s degrees; the rate was 55 percent for their more advantaged peers. With 4.5 million low-income, first-generation students enrolling in higher education, hopes are high but disparities in outcomes are growing. Students in this “doubly disadvantaged population” are more than four times more likely to leave college after the first year. They take with them significant debt that burdens themselves and their families with little to show for it.
Without scholarships, first-generation, low-income students like Chris and Pascale wouldn’t be able to attend prestigious schools. But without programs that consider the entire college experience, rather than just the financial need, they may not have made it to the graduation stage at all.
Chris, for instance, might not have succeeded if not for the Georgetown Scholarship Program. Since its founding in 2004, the donor-funded initiative has served over 1,000 students, 70 percent of them the first in their families to go to college. The program provides recipients with mentoring, alumni networking, and resume building, but it also provides basic necessities like bedding, professional clothing, and funding for students to travel home. When a student’s background as well as emotional, social, and physical well being is considered, rather than just her college application, the path toward graduation becomes more likely. Upon acceptance, students like Chris are labeled “scholars” and welcomed among the ranks for their potential.
Chris wasn’t satisfied just accepting the support, though; he wanted to do more to reach other communities of students like his own. He became co-founder of AL1GN, the Alliance for Low-Income First-Generation Narrative, through which he’s sought to create a “network of networks” among students, faculty, staff, researchers, and allies. The goal of the group is to share not just resources but stories, too.
Policymakers and institutions, too, are starting to not only recognize the unique challenges of first-generation students but also support and uplift their path. First in the Family, for example, is a resource hub that intervenes at the high-school level to prepare college-bound students and their families for higher education; it gives them access to multimedia, workshops, and first-generation allies.
Online communities, like the grant-funded I’m First, created by the Center for Student Opportunity, offer students portals to find colleges, ask questions about the application process, and hear stories of first-generation successes. The message is one of empowerment. One article reports four advantages of being a first-generation student. The focus is also on preparing family members who may feel ill-equipped to support their child (or relative) in their unfamiliar college endeavor.
Ultimately, as White, the Cleveland State diversity officer, noted, the administrative conversations about modern students have to evolve. The success of young people—and the schools they attend—depends on it.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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