Building Community: Supporting First-Generation College Students Across ACE Member Institutions
September 29, 2021

​​​​​As 20 million college stude​nts return to campuses this fall, roughly one-third are first-generation.

First-generation students tend to come from lower-income households and are less likely than their peers with college-educated parents to complete their degrees. These students also comprise one of the largest demographics to receive Pell grant funding.

Earning a college degree remains critical, as bachelor’s degrees are one of the strongest avenues to boost economic mobility. College graduates bring in $1 million in extra earnings in their lifetime. On top of increased earning potential, college graduates maintain lower unemployment rates compared to high school graduates. During the Great Recession when unemployment reached its peak in 2010, recent college graduates experienced an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent, compared with a jobless rate of 15.8 percent for all young workers. Today, the jobless rate for bachelor’s degree holders is just 2.5 percent.

Spelman College, a private historically Black, women’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, maintains a student body composed of 16 percent first-generation students.

In 2018, the college established Ford First Gen @ Spelman College as a commitment to improving graduation rates amongst first-generation students. A program of this kind at a historically Black institution serves students well as 58 percent of Pell Grant recipients identify as Black and many are first-generation students. During its first year, the program matched 50 freshmen with 10 rising juniors who were also first-generation students and served as their peer mentors. Each junior mentor received a $10,000 scholarship, as well as the opportunity to be mentored by a Ford Motor Company professional. The program also provides students with personal and professional services as well as other support throughout their time in college.

“Studies have shown that first-generation students who have mentorship and have that support structure do better because it’s not just about getting into college, it’s about getting out of college,” said Pamela Alexander, director of community development at the Ford Motor Company Fund.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) also is dedicated to serving first-generation students, with academic achievement initiatives and an incentive awards program to offer community, resources, and other support.

"We have to counter the notion that you see in the media: that anybody who is wealthy enough and privileged enough will tend to go to certain universities," Freeman Hrabowski, longtime president of the university, recently told Inside Higher Ed. "We take a young man who had no one [in his family] go to college, and before you know it, he is the president of Clemson University. It’s a wonderful story. We take a young woman out of Hillsborough, N.C., and she becomes the first Black woman to create a vaccine. These are exciting stories, and they show America that you can come from the working class or middle class and become the very best."

East Carolina University (ECU), a public research university in Greenville, North Carolina, supports I’m the First, a student-run organization founded in 2018 to provide peer support for first-generation students through monthly meetings, social events, and informational activities.

Jocelyne Alfaro-Ruiz, president of the club in 2020-21, experienced many challenges and obstacles as a first-generation college student at the beginning of her university experience.

“Many times, I felt like an imposter because I truly believed I did not belong here,” she said. “My biggest challenge that I faced was the guilt I felt for deciding to come to college and leaving my family behind. When I was home, I had a big role in my family as most first-gen do, but especially since neither of my parents speak English and I was leaving my little sister alone.”

ECU offers other resources such as a website designed for first-generation students and family members, which includes a listing of ECU faculty and staff who were the first in their families to go to college. The university also provides a freshman seminar tailored for first-generation students to help them connect with others as they navigate college.

Bowling Green State University estimates that about 30 percent of its student body are first-generation college students.

The first semester of college remains a daunting challenge for any first-year student, but it can be particularly intimidating if students are without a support network. The university offers a summer intensive link program called Generation Falcon, a free five-day program to help acclimate first-generation students to campus and let them know about available resources and academic opportunities.

Beyond supporting first-generation students during move-in, the university offers a tailored seminar class, meetings, and events to help build community.

“Our job is about changing the trajectory of a student’s life,” said Joshua Lawrie, director of residence life. “We know that their life can be changed by attaining that degree, and we work day in and day out helping students be successful.”

The Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative spearheaded by NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the Suder Foundation, recently launched First-gen Forward, a program that recognizes higher education institutions for their commitment to first-generation student success and named these four institutions members of their 2021-22 cohort.

Doubling Pell Grants: Investing in the Future of First-Generation Students

According to a 2015 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 48 percent of first-generation students receive a federal Pell Grant, a foundational resource for low and moderate-income undergraduate students to help pay the cost of college. Pell Grants assist nearly 7 million students attend and complete a postsecondary degree each year.

Despite the critical support that Pell Grants offer, the share of college costs it covers remains at an all-time low. Nearly 50 years ago, the maximum grant covered over three-quarters of the cost of attending a four-year public college. Following decades of state budget cuts that increased tuition costs, along with stagnant household incomes at the same time, Pell Grants currently cover less than one-third of those costs.

Investing in Pell Grants helps boost economic mobility. In 2018, the median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients with no advanced degree working full time were $24,900 higher than those of high school graduates. Bachelor’s degree recipients paid an estimated $7,100 more in taxes and took home $17,800 more in after-tax income than high school graduates.

The higher education community recognizes how critical additional funding for the Pell Grant remains for our nation’s students. ACE has joined a broad coalition of nearly 1,200 organizations, including almost 900 colleges and universities, in urging Congress to double the maximum Pell Grant. Visit our #DoublePell website to send letters to Congress and encourage students to submit their stories of how the Pell program has made their college education possible.