In a recent article for the Atlantic Monthly, “How Low-Income Students Are Fitting in at Elite Colleges” (24 February 2016), Richard Kahlenberg explores the shifting narratives around students who are the first in their families at four-year universities. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action (1973), reports that these “first-generation students” are finding power identifying their (familial) educational backgrounds.
The first-generation label “stakes a broader tent than limiting concerns to students who come from impoverished backgrounds.” This is a significant and timely shift. Whereas earlier cohorts of first-generation students found themselves hidden in the shadows of elite institutions, current students locate a sense of pride in overcoming the significant obstacles to educational access they face. Data show that, in comparison to their “continuing-generation” peers, first-generation students take longer to complete their degrees (Chen & Caroll, 2005) and have higher dropout rates (Engle & Tinto, 2008). As of 2016, only about a third of Americans have a college degree. According to researchers’ best estimates, first-generation students make up over 30% of all of today’s college students. These numbers reinforce Kahlenberg’s own findings. First-generation students are not uniformly the children of impoverished families, but rather represent a kaleidoscope of different backgrounds. At a time when America as a whole is focused on expanding access to higher education and re-thinking current models for the bachelor’s degree—just think of the current debates around education among presidential candidates—, faculty members must consider the ways that existing teaching and learning practices do, or do not, meet the needs of first-generation students.
In his article, Kahlenberg zeroes in on elite institutions. Rightly so, some might argue. The most prestigious and powerful institutions have long been bastions of privilege, until recently limited to white, middle- and upper-class men. The ongoing democratization of higher education has done little to shake the status quo. Roughly half of all government and corporate leaders, research shows, come from just 12 elite universities. In his widely-acclaimed, antagonistic treatise Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014), former Ivy League professor William Deresciewicz cites the elite educational system for the reproduction of existing class structures. Success in college often means following a series of rules that are largely unwritten. Regardless of the resources available to students from less resourced families, it is often impossible to succeed if these rules continue unwritten. By fostering the success of only those students that have the capital, financial and cultural, to succeed in college, the argument goes, elite institutions limit the pipeline of future leaders to students lucky enough to be born into privileged families.
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