09/16/2013 09:32 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Danger of 'Efficiency': Don't Shut Out First-Generation College Students

They landed on campus exactly two weeks ago--this year's freshman class. Actually I'm not supposed to call them "freshmen" anymore. Now they're "first-year students," much like "dormitories" have given way to "residence halls" and "nontraditional students" have morphed into "adult learners." I understand and agree with the rationale behind the changes in terminology, but I also remember being a freshman who lived in a dorm many long years ago. So deep in my heart of hearts, they'll always be freshmen and dorms to me.

Anyway, they're here and their first year of college is now well under way. Move-in day is always exciting and interesting, as I wander around the parking lot chatting with the students and their parents. Some new students arrive in nice cars, sometimes pulling small trailers, accompanied by several family members who help them move lots of stuff into their newly assigned -- ahem! -- residence hall rooms. I overhear parents sharing war stories from their own college years and chatting with their kids about getting the mini-fridge fully stocked, joining a sorority or fraternity, and the date for the first home soccer game. Confident voices of experience talking with young people for whom college was predestined at birth.

But there are other new students here as well -- young people who are bravely walking into completely new territory filled with unknowns and questions. They don't bring as much paraphernalia with them -- fewer clothes, not as many electronic gadgets, no fridge or microwave of their own -- and they don't need a parking sticker because they won't have a car on campus. Their parents ask different questions: Where's the financial aid office? Can I set up a monthly tuition payment plan? Will my son or daughter have access to three good meals a day in the dining hall? Is there any extra charge to use the tutoring center? I overhear them encouraging their kids to study hard, not fall behind in their classes or spend too much money at the snack bar, and check into getting an on-campus job as soon as possible.

That was me, almost 40 years ago. Neither of my parents went to college. My mom briefly attended nursing school before getting married and having kids, and my dad dropped out of high school, although he did have the good sense to go back years later for his GED. I was the oldest of four children, so I didn't enjoy the advantage of having an older sibling "go first." To the best of my knowledge, only one older cousin -- whom I saw briefly once a year at Christmas -- had gone to college. And as is often the case with first-generation college students, my family lived paycheck-to-paycheck and had never been able to save any money to help put me or my siblings through college.

My experience was typical of many first-generation college students. My entire wardrobe pretty much fit into one large suitcase, and I rarely had more than five dollars in my pocket at any time. I have painful memories of being invited to join friends for a late-night run to the local pizza joint, and having to make up a lame excuse about why I couldn't go. I failed a class when I couldn't figure out how to complete a major assignment, because it involved doing basic fieldwork at an elementary school of my choice. No car, no transportation, no idea how to get there, and too shy and embarrassed to speak up about my lack of resources to the professor or to ask a fellow student for help.

In many ways, I have led a charmed life. I somehow managed to earn my college degree and then go on to graduate school, which has opened doors that I never could have imagined as a first-generation college freshman. As I get to know this wonderful bunch of first-year college students at Machias this fall, I am often reminded of what it felt like to be in their shoes. Public higher education -- affordable and accessible to those who need it most -- is incredibly important to this country in so many ways. But if we aren't careful, the incessant drive for greater accountability and efficiency will erode the ability of schools like the University of Maine at Machias to serve students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Those students often need additional support that strains resources, and many of them take longer to complete their degrees, if they manage to do so at all.

Small public colleges are faced with a dilemma. We could operate more efficiently and improve our graduation rates if we raised our admissions standards, didn't put so much money into need-based financial aid, and reduced student support staff positions. But that would leave an awful lot of first-generation college students out in the cold. I'm really glad that didn't happen to Cindy Huggins back in 1974.

Let's don't go there, please. Everyone deserves a chance.