College Access for All Students
Low-income, First-generation and Minority Students Can Conquer College
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Low-income and minority students may face challenges in the pursuit of a college education, from limited financial resources to inadequate academic preparation. Although high school graduation rates and college enrollment numbers for students in these groups have improved in recent years, a study by the U.S. Department of Education shows that the college completion rate for students of low socioeconomic status was just 14 percent within eight years of high school graduation.
Despite difficulties, some students are surmounting the obstacles they encounter. Here’s how they’re doing it.
An early start
Research shows that children from low-income homes are exposed to fewer words and books in the early years. Free access to books and other educational opportunities at libraries and community centers helps children without books at home build a firm foundation for learning.
Low-income and minority students can take advantage of college access programs as early as middle school. Rowan University offers the C.H.A.M.P./GEAR UP program to students in grades 6-12 in Camden, NJ. The program, and others like it, provides tutoring, educational activities, SAT preparation, college and university trips, college application and financial aid assistance and career exploration activities.
Winona Wigfall, director of pre-college programs at Rowan, advises, “It’s important to get students exposed to different careers as early as middle school so they can see what kinds of skills they need.”
According to Tara Kent, PhD, dean of the Keystone Honors Academy at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in Cheyney, PA, many Cheyney University students come from low-income and minority backgrounds. Their home lives may have included supportive families or no family ties at all. Some students have lived in group homes, been homeless or experienced trauma in their home environments. Kent says, “Regardless of background, there are some features that seem to play a role in a student’s success. Many of our students have had someone in their lives who encouraged them to apply themselves and who emphasized the importance of education: parents, teachers, neighbors, siblings, friends or even social workers.”
Parents can feel overwhelmed when they try to help with schoolwork, figure out how to prepare their kids for college and learn how to get money to send their kids to college. The school guidance counselor can direct parents to resources in the school and community that can help with college preparation.
Being accepted to college is an accomplishment, but it’s just the beginning. Students from low-income backgrounds often have to work jobs that take time away from studying. Many such students find themselves unprepared for college-level work and need to take remedial classes. First-generation college students often experience feelings of guilt about the opportunities available to them and worry about how their family may be struggling, according to a study published in the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology.
Last semester, a group of first-generation college students at the University of Delaware in Newark formed a group called We’re First to talk about their experiences, share what’s working for them and provide support to one another.
If a parent feels unsure how to help her child once he’s entered college, Jessica Cornwell, one of the We’re First advisors, says, “Help your student find resources on campus and motivate him to build relationships with other students, faculty and support staff. Even if parents haven’t gone to college, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a relationship with the college. If they have questions, they can call the dean of students.”
Cornwell continues, “There’s a lot of talk about what first-generation college students don’t have, but they bring a lot of assets to college. They’re optimistic because they’re taking risks, and they have more resilience and grit from overcoming more challenges to get there.”
See page 2 for success stories from local college students.