Congratulations. You Got Into College. Now What?

06/28/2016 04:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2015-09-18-1442536604-5196058-LynneMartinHeadshot2015.jpg By Lynne Martin, Executive Director
Students Rising Above

Getting into college is a huge first step for low-income, first-generation students.

They've successfully navigated the college application process, completed financial aid forms, and sent in their deposit. They're all set to go and, of course, confident that they'll graduate. Right? Think again.

For many students, college acceptance does not guarantee college completion.

In fact, national statistics suggest that only 59% of all students who attend four-year colleges will graduate in six years. If you're low-income or a student of color, the national college graduation rate is barely 10%.

The good news is that more low-income students are being accepted to four-year colleges. The bad news is that the dream of college doesn't often match the reality. Academic, emotional and social challenges present real barriers to success.

In fact, low-income, first-generation students require more than a tuition check to get through this transformative phase of their lives.

To help them graduate from college, it's important to understand the obstacles they're up against-- challenges that their more advantaged peers will never understand. It's also in our national interest to ensure this group of inspired young people succeeds and becomes role models in their communities.

Many Unexpected Challenges
For starters, many low-income, first-generation college students quickly find themselves competing against students with a clear advantage.

The children of educated parents have likely gone to better schools, had tutoring, and benefit from solid financial and emotional support from their families. The path forward for these students has been clear since an early age. For even the top performing, first-generation college student, this heightened level of competition is initially a shock.

That's not all. Many first-generation students find that they don't fit in socially, particularly students of color in largely white universities. Consequently, it's often hard to make friends or feel connected on campus. Moreover, low-income students have limited shared experience with their more affluent peers. Few have traveled or spent much time outside of their neighborhoods.

As a practical matter, low-income students often have less money, and that means less participation in dorm activities and Saturday night pizza get-togethers. To put money in their pockets, many low-income students have to work 20 to 30 hours a week. If you're working, you're out of the social loop. For their part, families sometimes hope their college student doesn't succeed, counter-intuitive though it may seem. A college degree can set graduates on a different path than their families.

Collateral Damage
When low-income students drop out of school, it has disastrous effects.

Students have to pay back the loans whether they graduate or not. Because low-income students are likely to take out loans and are more likely to drop out of college, a disproportionate number have student debt. Many incorrectly think they can declare bankruptcy when they graduate, but student loan debt is never forgiven.

The failure to graduate is not only a personal tragedy, but also a national tragedy. Student loan debt in the U.S. now totals more than $1 trillion. The average student loan debt is $33,000. This economic burden negatively affects our economy for years to come. It delays a student's ability to buy a home, start a family and become productive contributors to society.

What To Do
Despite the challenges facing low-income, first-generation college students, they are well known-- and manageable. That's been our experience at Students Rising Above (SRA) over the past 17 years of helping low-income, first-generation college students attain degrees. Ninety percent of SRA students get a college diploma and 85% are in graduate school or career ladder jobs within 12 months of college graduation.

Here's a snapshot on how students can cross the chasm to college graduation:

  • Connect with as many campus groups as possible. Find a student community that meets your needs and with whom you feel comfortable. If you establish a network of friends on campus, there's no need to go home every weekend.

  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. Most campuses have excellent student support services that can provide tutorial, emotional and social services. You're not the first person to experience the anxiety of being at college. Others can and will help you.
  • Get to know your professors. Most educators enjoy talking to students who are eager to learn. That's why they became teachers in the first place. Show up to their office hours and engage them.
  • Remain close to your financial aid officer. Make sure he or she has a good understanding of your situation. Be your own best advocate.
  • Recognize there will be many ups and downs. College is hard, but the difficult times often pass quickly. Stick with it through graduation. Quitting is often the worst possible solution to any problem you may encounter.
  • More than anything, continue to believe in yourself. Even when family/friends may not be there for you, just continue to work hard and stay focused.
  • SRA also offers our College2Careers Hub, a free online resource (including direct access to professional college counselors) for high school and college students to help them make the most of their college experience.

    Success Matters
    Everyone involved in education recognizes the benefit of seeing more low-income, first-generation students earn a college degree. When they graduate, more often than not they break the cycle of poverty-- improving their own lives, their future families and communities. As a society, it's our responsibility to provide the academic, financial, social and emotional mentorship and support to enable more students to achieve the dream of a college education.

    Lynne Martin is Executive Director of Students Rising Above, an award-winning nonprofit based in San Francisco that works with more than 5,000 low-income, first generation high school and college students across the U.S.