First-generation students comprise over 30% of Florida Atlantic University’s population across all six campuses but they are largely underserved in higher education. As college enrollment declines nationwide students are left to navigate the stresses of the application process, where to enroll, and financial stresses – leading many not to apply at all.
A recent National Student Clearinghouse study claims that college enrollment is declining among high school graduates. First-generation students are at the forefront of the decline and are more likely to come from lower-income households according to data from The Postsecondary National Policy Institute.
“People tend to not understand tuition and financial aid and just like the general cost of college versus the cost of the alternative, like what it would be like to be someone who is working full time,” said Lara Perez-Felkner, an associate professor of higher education and sociology at Florida State University.
Shyra Johnson, the retention specialist at FAU’s Office of First-Generation Student Success, is a first-gen student herself. She’s also a Kelly/Strul Emerging Scholar, which is a university program that provides academic and financial assistance to academically talented, low-income, first-gen students allowing them to graduate debt-free from FAU in four years.
Johnson is pursuing her master’s degree in sports management at FAU and recently became the nation’s youngest certified sports agent. She says she takes advantage of every resource available to her while pointing out that college is about networking. Through First and Proud, the university connects first-gen students to various resources on and off-campus.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re an agent or not for me, I’m still asking,” Johnson said. “For any first-gen that wants to start a business, there’s no way you can even call home to ask. It’s gonna be just the research, the books, experience, and mentors.”
According to the Kelly/Strul Program, 90% of low-income first-generation students do not graduate in four years, and 89% of them will leave college without a degree. However, early college preparedness programs can alleviate these statistics, according to Perez-Felkner.
“The choices that are made in middle school can really constrain and limit the choices and opportunities that students have in high school and college,” Perez-Felkner said. “In public schools, there’s a lot of stuff that you don’t have to pay for that are free opportunities to learn and explore and get credit before you have to pay for it in college.”
Senior elementary education major Jaireen Ruiz is both a Kelly/Strul Scholar and a mentor to others in the program. She did not know anything about applying for college when graduating from Lake Worth High School but says teachers and other relationships created a community of support.
“Education was huge for my parents. They both came from small neighborhoods in Puerto Rico,” said Ruiz. “Since I was a baby or very young I could always remember my mom telling us that we were going to do better than her, and that was talking about higher education.”
As the retention specialist, Johnson puts emphasis on outside factors that affect first-gen students in addition to academics.
“My stance is the motivation,” Johnson said. “I always try to find out students’ motivation. Why are you here? How do you motivate yourself day to day, week to week? And what’s the ultimate goal?” Johnson said.
Ruiz and Johnson both say that it is important for first-gen students to research and ask plenty of questions when applying for college.
“Sometimes you get intimidated because you don’t wanna feel ignorant in that topic or feel like ‘Oh they’re gonna judge me,’” Ruiz said. “Honestly no one is gonna judge you, cause even people who do know the experience, there’s questions that I have almost ending college.”
Asking questions and reaching out for help is something that can be particularly hard for first-gen students, which Perez-Felkner attributes to “cultural capital.”
“They may withdraw more, and they may be less likely to use these resources that are often cases designed for them, but don’t feel as available unless someone is explicitly recommending it to them,” Perez-Felkner said.
In addition to the academic pressures that first-gen students face, Perez-Felkner says there are additional factors that stem from home, specifically for women during the pandemic.
“The pressures to be there and be a support if they didn’t have to be away at college,” Perez-Felkner said. “All the kinds of challenges that they have to to help support their families and with younger siblings or with work demands.”
According to Perez-Felkner, over the years FSU has intentionally worked on recruitment and admissions, attentive to socio-economic challenges in students, high schools, and neighborhoods. The result is a highly diverse class of students who have applied and been accepted.
“Over the years we’ll keep seeing more representative enrollment of college students that look more like the people who grew up in these neighborhoods and live and walk around the community,” Perez-Felkner said.
For more information about the Office of First-Generation Student Success or to join “First and Proud,” click here.
Nadia Gordon is the Director of Broadcast Journalism for the University Press. For more information on this article or others, you can reach Nadia at [email protected]
This story was originally published on University Press on March 31, 2022.