AnaBarrosgrew up in a two family house built by Habitat for Humanity, hard by the boarded up buildings and vacant lots of Newark, New Jersey. Neither of her parentsattended college, but she was a star student. With a 2200 on her SATs, she expected to fit in at Harvard.
Yet here she was at a lecture for a sociology course called, paradoxically, “Poverty in America”, whena classmate opened her laptop and planned a multi country spring break trip to Europe. (Barroscan’tafford textbooks; she borrows from the library.)
Gathering together: members of 1VYG, a group of students across multiple Ivy League campuses speaking up about what it is like to be a first in family student at wealthy universities. Photo: Charlie Mahoney
On the sidewalks of Cambridge, Massachusetts, students brush past her in their $700 Canada Goose parkas and $1,000Monclerpuffer jackets. (Barrossaved up for two years for good boots.) On an elite campus, income inequality can be in your face.
A professor once described how hardships become inscribed on one’s body, andBarrosthought of her father, a janitor at a home for troubled boys, and the wrinkles carved in his face from worrying about money and her mother’s health. canada goose women Majoring in sociology, she says, “has made me hyper aware of class differences here”.
Engaged: Ana Barros is enjoying her studies at Harvard and now has a support group for students from a similar background to hers. Photo: Charlie Mahoney
Weary of trying to pass as middle class,Barrosdecided to “come out”, borrowing the phrase from the gay community. She joined and now leads the two year old Harvard College First Generation Student Union, which has 300 on its email list. “This is a movement,” she said. “We are not ashamed of taking on this identity.”
On the nation’s most prestigious campuses, first generation in college students likeBarrosare organising, speaking up about who they are and what’s needed to make their path to a degree less fraught. There’s the Hidden Minority Council at Princeton and the First Generation Low Income Partnership at Yale and Columbia. Lynda Lopez started the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance after a Facebook page she created,UChicagoClass Confessions,filled with frank exchanges within minutes.
And in February, 1vyG, a student group formed last spring at Brown, hosted the first Inter Ivy First Generation Student Network Conference. Some 250 students came to the snowbound Rhode Island campus from as far away as Stanford and Pomona College. The conference had the feel of a giddy meet up for people unaccustomed to seeing others like them.
They crashed on dorm room floors and wore cherry red conference T shirts. Speakers included the president of Brown, a founder of the nonprofitQuestBridge, and the executive director of Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher college campaign. Teach for America, the investment firm Bridgewater Associates and Google were sponsors.
Over three days, the conference unfolded as part edification (students left a talk on socioeconomics cheering “It’s not our fault!”), part sharing and part empowerment. Participants traced obstacles, from juggling multiple jobs to frustrations when parents disapproved of majors they didn’t understand.
RudyTorres, a Brown junior from East Los Angeles, told of arriving at a welcome reception for admitted students at a Beverly Hills mansion only to have the host greet his father, a high school dropout, with a question: “Where did you go to undergrad?” The guests were white and the waiters, like his family, Mexican. “It was very uncomfortable,” he said.
First gen students cut across racial and ethnic lines. Not all are poor, but many are, including a majority of those at elite colleges. According to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, median family income is $37,565 for freshmen whose parents did not attend college and $99,635 for those whose parents did.
The economic gap is even starker at Ivy League universities. More than half of Harvard’s freshman class come from families making more than $125,000 a year, including 15 per cent with incomes between $250,000 and $500,000 and another 14 per cent over $500,000. Many of the 15 per cent who are first generation freshmen earn under $40,000, said WilliamFitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid.
Academically, all these students can do the work. The question becomes, ‘When do social hurdles get in the way?’
Anthony Jack, PhD student at Harvard
The first gen label is slippery, though: Some federal programs, the Common Application and many Ivies, including Harvard and Brown, apply the term when parents don’t have a bachelor’s degree. Many others, including the National Centrefor Education Statistics, often identify first generation students as those whose parents have no college experience.
Of the 7.3 million full time undergraduates attending four year public and private nonprofit institutions, about 20 per cent are the first in their families to go to college. While the number has ticked up as college going has increased overall, the proportion has actually declined from 40 years ago, when 38 per cent were first generation, according to the annual UCLA survey.
ThomasMortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, says that the rising cost of attendance, the shift in federal aid from grants to loans and tax credits, and the drive by public universities to attract more full paying students has put full time attendance out of reach. Many attend part time or enrolat two year or for profit colleges. Washington University in StLouis, the least economically diverse top school, in January vowed to increase freshman enrolment of Pell recipients from 8 per cent to 13 per cent by 2020.
Despite efforts, the percentage doesn’t budge much, and Fitzsimmons expects it will take a generation before hard to reach students consider Harvard in substantial numbers. “We have a long slog ahead of us.”
What happens when students from undereducated families matriculate at the biggest brand names in higher education? It’s complicated.
The very point of enrolling at elite schools, of course, is to absorb the power and privilege that come with the degree. That’s harder for some than others, notes Anthony Abraham Jack, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Harvard who studies low income students and their paths to college.
“Academically, all these students can do the work,” he said. “The question becomes, ‘When do social hurdles get in the way?’”
In his research, Jack describes two types of first generation students: the “privileged poor” and the “doubly disadvantaged”. The privileged poor attend private high schools or pre college programs like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance, which ready them, he says, for the culture shock of a wealthy campus and give them practice interacting with adults. http://www.gooseonsale.top The doubly disadvantaged, he says, “stay in local, typically distressed and segregated high schools”.
One of the hard things about being a low income student, Jack said, is the breezy talk that unfolds when students describe “going to Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons because that’s where someone’s graduation party was”. Or when they recount vacations and travel. That makes spring break difficult, which is why he considers it a victory that, after being pressed, administrators kept two dining halls open last month, for the first time, in recognition that not all students can leave.