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.
Attending college is among the best ways to move up the economic ladder. Bachelor’s degree holders earn more than two million dollars more over a lifetime than those without. Given the rising costs of education, many fear that good higher education is getting out of reach of the poor.
And when poor students do attend schools, they too often choose the schools for which students have the worst outcomes: Low graduation rates, high debt and low future earnings.
To battle these forces, the federal government implemented the College Scorecard initiative. This initiative is an attempt to highlight those schools which are low cost and financially remunerative, and to condemn those that are neither. While the primary feature of College Scorecard is a website at which students and parents can look up statistics about schools, another aspect of the initiative was the release of a huge, publicly available dataset, which includes a breakdown of outcomes by economic background.
We decided to use this data to see which schools are helping lower income students get into the middle class, and which are not. Where exactly does a low income student get the “biggest bang for their buck?” The answer seems to be that, if possible, poor students should attend the elite institutions that lead to high salaries and have generous financial aid programs. If these highly selective institutions are out of reach, as they are to most Americans, a technology-focused state school may be the best option.