educational justice

COVID-19 School Closures Shine a Light on the Disparities That Exist for First-Gen and Low-Income Students

With the imminent threat of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), colleges across the country shut their doors to over 100,000 students. Many students returned home, but many students—mostly first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students—had nowhere to go. First-generation students are students who are the first generation in their families to graduate from a 4-year college.

FGLI college students are growing nationwide. According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, “24% of college students had parents with no college experience and almost 56% of college students had no parents without a bachelor's degree” (RTI International, 2019). 56% is a significant number of undergraduate students, so colleges must support these students. 

The closures of schools and transitions to online learning have left these students unsupported and vulnerable. Many FGLI students work to support themselves while in college, often more than 20 hours a week. Many of these jobs are on-campus. Schools shutting down have left many students without a living. 

Worry over housing, work, food, storage and access to internet are just a few concerns FGLI students have during this outbreak. These resources are necessary for these students to not only survive, but to also thrive.

The onset of COVID-19 will prove to be a great experiment in education. How many of our educational institutions, both k-12 and in higher education, have shifted from ‘college-ready’ to ‘student ready’?

In a 2018 report published by the Center For First-Generation Student Success, they contend that instead of emphasizing what FGLI students need to individually do to prepare for and succeed in college, institutions should be ready to support these students with policies, programs and key personnel, so that they can survive and thrive in college.

While challenging, some schools are leading the way in supporting these students. Only emphasizing the graduation rates (or the survival rate) is inadequate. ‘Survival’ is barebones and does not ensure a quality educational experience. Students need to thrive, both in and after college. ‘Thriving’ means these students feel like they belong and have equitable access to opportunities like study abroad, paid internships, research, service-learning, etc. just as much as their more affluent, continuing-generation students. 

For students considering college, both for this upcoming year and in future years, it’s important to know if your college has resources and climate that supports you. Being the first in the family to attend college poses many challenges, especially if finances have always been limited. Below are just three innovative examples of colleges that help their most at-risk, yet high-potential students thrive. Many other innovative leaders that warrant credit exist beyond this list.

University of California (UC) and Berkeley

One state-wide innovation is ‘FirstGen Stories,’ a page of submitted stories from FGLI students, staff, faculty, alumni and leaders across the state. They also offer advice and resources for current FGLI students. 

With 26% of students identifying as First-Gen, Berkeley has many programs to support this population, such as the Berkeley Connect. Undergraduate students are paired with graduate students of similar interests and fields of study. They provide individual advising, group activities in the department and exploration of university resources. For FGLI students, effective mentoring can play a pivotal role in helping these students both graduate and thrive in their universities. 

These programs are institutionalized into a larger umbrella program, The Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence (CE3). CE3 is comprised of 15 programs that serve various underrepresented students, including FGLI. These programs are innovative for their inter-silo collaboration to support and serve students adequately. These offices have strong partnerships with other offices that support FGLI students, such as admissions, financial aid, the registrar and various academic units. 

Georgetown University

Georgetown University (GU) holds the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP), a comprehensive support system for FGLI students within the cohort. Started by a dedicated student and admissions officer in 2004, GSP now employs eight staff, which serves 600 GU students. Only 12% of GU students identify as FGLI (about 895 total students). 

Admissions select students for GSP, with a preference for high-achieving students from a FGLI background. Participants have access to resources like peer and alumni mentorships, a regional network, necessity funds and community building. I will focus on just three: The Community Dinners, the Student Board and the Necessity Fund. 

Community Dinners: Twice a month, GPS offers community dinners, which seek to normalize the challenges FGLI students face in college. Dinner may be casual, or with speakers and discussions on a particular topic.

Student Board: GSP empowers a board of GSP students to work with campus affiliates to advocate for the FGLI population. The board also plans events such as the annual #GSProud campaign, a week where students share their stories and hold workshops on how GU can be more inclusive of FGLI students. 

Necessity Fund: GSP administers a philanthropy based Necessity Fund, often funded by GSP Alum. First years can use this grant to cover travel to and from home at the beginning and end of each semester, purchase a winter coat or even for emergencies, like visiting a terminally ill family member. This fund covers tutoring, graduate test preparation, medical expenses or groceries during breaks. Upper-class participants use this fund to attend conferences, purchase professional attire or defray the cost of graduate school applications. The Necessity Fund helps students persist and even thrive in college. 

Both the participants and the program benefit from these supports. GSP holds a 96% graduation rate, 1% above GU’s overall graduation rate. Moreover, within just 15 years of existence, 62% of GSP alumni give back to the program.

University of Pennsylvania (Upenn)

UPenn’s programs are relatively new. In 2014, student leaders of various FGLI organizations united to form Penn First to advocate for more support on campus. By 2016, the “First Generation Low Income Center '' officially opened, becoming the second center for FGLI students of all Ivy-League schools.

This new center works across silos to support their students. For example, The center partners with the library to create a free FGLI texbook lending library, with over 3,500 textbooks. Inter-Silo solutions are necessary for systemic change, which cannot be the responsibility of one department or school.

Individual schools employ a First Plus liaison who supports FGLI students by referring them to resources like tutoring, studying abroad, internships or even student organizations.

Moving Forward

The innovations mentioned above are just a few examples of resources universities can offer for their FGLI students. The recent COVID-19 outbreak has unveiled the perpetual disparities that plague our educational institutions. With universities forcing students out of their residences, rendering them without resources to survive—including food, housing and internet—how can they possibly hope to thrive educationally in an unknown world?

While we hope to rid ourselves of the virus soon, the educational inequities that continue to plague us as a nation will stubbornly remain. How can our educational institutions be ‘student-ready’ and not the other way around? Let’s look to the leading institutions and find how we all can be not just ‘student-ready’ but also equity-ready. 

We must find solutions, especially for upcoming high school graduates as they transition to college. How will they know that the colleges they choose will support them, both in prosperity and in crisis? While we continue searching for answers, we do know what’s not the answer: We cannot and should not change the student. We must change the system that is supposed to support and protect them.

Photos courtesy of the author.
Josh Farris
Josh Farris is a 2019 alumnus of the University of Virginia (UVA). He graduated from the Curry School of Education and Human Development with a Bachelor of Science in youth and social innovation. Josh is a first-generation and low-income (FGLI) college graduate from a rural community in Southwest Virginia. Through his experience as an FGLI student in education, he has a passion for promoting ...

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