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The Low-Income and First-Generation College Student Experience

The typical experience of students who come from low-income and first-generation backgrounds.

Photo of Keyarash Jahanian
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Low-income and first-generation college students have to navigate numerous challenges during their college experience. When exploring their 4-year college options in high school, these students typically have to limit their options to the most affordable institutions since their incomes are limited. However, even the most affordable options are becoming quite expensive, forcing these students to take out significant loans and work multiple part-time jobs that take up at least 25 hours per week and generate barely enough income to cover their living expenses. If students are taking 15 credit hours per semester, they have at least 40 hours committed to class or work every week, limiting the number of hours they can study, get involved on campus, or stay in touch with friends and family back home. Because they are the first in their family to attend college, they are alone in navigating all the challenges they experience in college.

Since many of these students are students of color, they transition from high schools where they are surrounded by classmates from similar backgrounds to universities that are largely populated by upper-middle-income white students. This makes it difficult for these students to quickly find friends that can serve as a pillar of support at the university. In addition, institutions tend to have few faculty and staff of color, limiting the number of professionals with whom these students can connect. As a result, they feel isolated and lonely even before classes start. Persistent microaggressions and a campus climate that may not feel supportive of the needs of students of color make them feel as though they do not belong at the institution.

All of this is compounded by the fact that their college classes are significantly more difficult than their high school classes. These students typically study several hours to earn average grades, which is in sharp contrast to the number of hours they studied to earn solid grades in high school. They often complain about their classmates studying half as much to earn better grades. Although their campuses have services that can help them improve their grades, they may not know these services exist and subsequently don't access them in spite of their need. They may feel uncomfortable approaching their instructors after class because they are intimidated by their instructors or they think seeking help is an admission of failure.

These issues highlight how difficult it is to be a low-income and first-generation college student. Because they face one barrier after another, they constantly question whether they belong in college. They often opt to drop out and work full-time because their short-term financial need outweighs the long-term benefits of a college education. This is the most unfavorable outcome for these students, but the absence of a supportive university community and the increasing cost of tuition makes the decision pretty easy for them. Our goal in this challenge should be to change the outcomes for these students.

Specifically, please check all that apply:

  • An Individual

Tell us about your work experience:

I have experience working on projects for the Gates Foundation's US Education team and currently work at an institution of higher education.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

There is no single bullet solution to the problems faced by all learners, especially low-income and first-generation students. Technology is often thought of as a panacea that can help solve the myriad challenges that students face, but this ignores how complex these challenges are. Only solutions that address all aspects of a student's experience can truly help them make progress in their academic journeys.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Keyarash!

Thank you for your post.

I hope you will come back for the ideas phase (which is now open)

Can programs like these reduce dropout rates?

"Posse" and Circle of Care Dedication and How can we better prepare first-generation and low-income students for life during and after college? 

Should more students be aware of Hacking a Credential ?

Photo of Kate Rushton

Is there any chance you could find an image to go along with your post? Images help grab attention and tell a story. You should be able to use the Edit Contribution button on the top of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.

Photo of Kate Rushton

Sorry for all the posts. A friend of mine (a British-Zambian ed tech researcher) posted this on one of his social media accounts -

Do higher education institutions need to also raise awareness of pivotal African American researchers?

Photo of Keyarash Jahanian

Thanks for the feedback. I added an image for my post and uploaded an image for my profile. Feel free to make more comments as they're very interesting and helpful.

Photo of Kate Rushton

Thank you! The ideas phase is now open. I hope to see you there.