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Speeches & Media

How to Close the Success Gap

First-generation students benefit from efforts to recruit, retain and support

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2017

With their diplomas and college plans in hand, many high school graduates this month are celebrating their prospects and looking forward to the next chapter. For students who are the first in their families to go to college, though, their excitement is mixed with anxiety. Will I fit in? Am I prepared for college? Can I keep up? I know because I once asked the same questions.

My father worked as a machinist in a factory, and neither of my parents went to college. Despite my achievements inside and outside the classroom, my high school guidance counselor discouraged me from applying to top colleges. I had to persuade him to support my application to Tufts, a great university in my hometown. Thanks to generous financial aid, I was able to attend while living at home. After graduation, with a professor’s encouragement, I headed to a doctoral program at Yale and a fulfilling career as an academic. It could have been otherwise for me, and it is otherwise for so many American students.

First-generation students are less likely than their peers to graduate in four years or to graduate at all. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported a 14-percentage-point gap in graduation rates between first-generation and other students. Many first-generation students come from low-income families and are eligible for federal Pell Grants. The Education Trust compared the graduation rates for Pell Grant–eligible and other students and also reported a 14-point gap.

At Smith, a commitment to student access and success has narrowed those gaps. Some years the graduation rates for our Pell and first-generation students have exceeded those of their peers. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I shared five lessons we have learned.

Make admissions decisions in the context of available opportunities. Did the high school offer Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, honors or college-prep courses? Did the student have access to affordable SAT prep? Applicants who haven’t had the advantage of strong academic preparation may demonstrate their talents through commitment to activities at school and in their communities. Context matters in recommendations, too. Teachers and college counselors at under-resourced schools might not have time to write detailed recommendations. Instead, they might convey in five key sentences that the student has what it takes to succeed; often, that is enough.

Go beyond school counselors. Colleges can partner with community-based organizations that provide coaching for students from under-resourced schools, with the goal of encouraging students to apply to a broader range of colleges. This is what the best-resourced high schools, public and private, do for all their students.

Partner with community colleges. For many students, community colleges provide a pathway to a four-year degree. At Smith, we have collaborative agreements with four of them: Miami Dade and Santa Monica colleges, and Greenfield and Holyoke community colleges in Massachusetts. Our 100 community college transfers are admitted in a process as competitive as the one for first-year students. They graduate into the same range of careers and postgraduate programs.

Help families see beyond the sticker price. A common misperception is that public colleges are more affordable than private ones. In fact, the opposite is often true, especially for qualified low-income students. Colleges need to make a strong statement to families that higher education is within reach for their children. Financial aid calculators help. As important, colleges need to send admissions representatives to as many high school financial aid events as possible.

Level the playing field. Mentoring is a powerful way to close the preparation gap. At Smith, our Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering and Sciences program connects students with faculty and peer mentors, engages students in faculty-supervised research and creates a network of academic and social support. AEMES students perform as well as peers in gateway science courses, persist in the natural sciences at higher rates than their peers and participate in natural-science honors and independent research at rates equivalent to their peers. One student joined a biology professor’s lab during her first year on campus. She has since conducted summer research and presented her work at academic conferences. She aspires to be a professor—and then a college president.

In his 2018 discretionary budget, President Donald Trump proposed deep cuts to the Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs—cuts that would make it harder for students with backgrounds like mine to attend college. The federal government and higher education play key roles in building an educated workforce, economic prosperity and equity for all. Social mobility through education is an essential part of the American dream. We can and must do more to make this dream available to all qualified students.

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2017, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.