Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Public Schools: Fostering the Dreams of the First Generation

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

While a college education is acknowledged to be the pathway into the middle class, getting into the higher education system requires an understanding of the application process. For many first generation college students, especially those who are from low-income families, the process is daunting with an overwhelming amount of information and countless choices. My own experience, with significant support from my high-school guidance counselor and an involved parent who did the financial aid forms, was stressful and at times confusing, and not everyone has the type of support I had.

Consider what goes into college admission. In addition to academic preparedness documented with a strong GPA, students must have a transcript that reflects both minimum requirements and recommended courses for the institutions they choose. Beyond their transcript, students must know and meet deadlines, from taking the SATs to submitting college applications and filing the appropriate financial aid forms. Tuition prices may seem overwhelming and they may be unaware of the loan and scholarship options available to them. And they may also be contending with difficult family dynamics: single parent families, parents who are unemployed or on disability, or parents who are supporting multiple family members. Also, parents who didn’t go to college are often unable to help navigate the system, however supportive they may be of their child.

If you are interested in learning more about the obstacles that first-generation college students face, First Generation is a thoughtful and compelling documentary that follows four low-income high school students as they navigate the challenges of applying for college. It touches on several barriers to entry through the stories of these young men and women – barriers that we as a country must address if we wish to increase the number of low-income students entering the higher education system.

Economists, business owners and policymakers frequently warn young people that a college education is the minimum they will need to compete in a twenty-first century workforce. That may be true, and these students in the film are aware that there is a value to higher education, but they do not always start on a college-going track. This reality ensures that the school counselors in the film stand out for their efforts to foster a college-going mentality. School counselors are a crucial part of a school’s staff and they play a key role in supporting students as they navigate social and emotional challenges. Unfortunately, in many states the ratio of counselors to students is quite low, making it difficult to provide quality support to every student in need.  

In the beginning of this film, which starts in the middle of the protagonists’ junior year, we see several meetings between the four students and their school guidance counselors. These counselors check to see if students are taking the appropriate courses. They also ensure that students know when the SAT is offered and assist them with some financial considerations. In many cases the counselors encourage students to consider options they might normally discount, such as going away to school, or applying to a more competitive institution because they’re qualified. These counselors demonstrate public schools that are there to help every child navigate a plausible path in pursuing their dreams and ambitions.

If we, as a country, want to increase our college-going rates, we must put more supports in place to assist low-income and first generation students. As the country’s demographics shift, more first generation students will be entering adulthood and the workforce. These students need more intensive long-term guidance within the school setting that establishes a clear path to college.  Because there is much insider information related to higher education, details that first generation students simply could not know but still must make decisions about, the role of the school provided support takes on added importance.  Through counselors, tutors and information transparency efforts, we must ensure that low-income students can see a path forward in higher education.

In addition, as a society, we should recognize that low-income first generation students contend with more than getting decent grades and meeting deadlines. The systemic challenges, of poverty and income insecurity, are extensive and part of a much broader conversation on our national economic priorities. Economic vitality and the strength of the middle class are also – cyclically – dependent on an educated workforce, and therefore lowering the barriers of entry to college for low-income first generation college students is both an economic and moral imperative.

If you're interested in hosting a screening of First Generation, please contact Kelly Tuke at: kelly@firstgenerationfilm.com. Image courtesy of http://firstgenerationfilm.com