The challenges abound for students just starting out in college. Figuring out where your classes are. Who you’re going to eat lunch with. Keeping up with your stacks of problem sets and piles of readings. How to not blow your life savings on coffee. But for first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students, the difficulties doubly persist — and not just financially or academically. Rather, the challenge of being an FGLI student on a college campus comes from adapting to an entirely new culture, one that inherently is at odds with low-income, minority backgrounds.
Because they have fewer financial resources, FGLI students often have to work one or more jobs to pay for the expense of attending college. And time spent working means time lost for academic pursuits, extracurriculars, networking and unpaid internships that all lead to future job opportunities and upward mobility.
As a result, FGLI students generally achieve lower grades, take fewer credits and have higher dropout rates than non-FGLI students. Students who come from middle-income and upper-income families (that’s $76,000 a year or more in the United States) graduate at a rate 57% higher than students from low-income families (e.g., $25,000 a year). Furthermore, those who had parents in college are also more likely to graduate on time; according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, 56% of first-generation students will not earn college degrees after six years of enrollment, compared to only 40% of continuing-generation students.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume the financial disparity is gone and that FGLI students are now attending a college that generously provides full financial support, meaning that FGLI students are not at a monetary disadvantage. In that case, you might say that the experiences of FGLI students are now equitable to other students — after all, everyone has academic struggles and it’s a meritocracy, just like high school. But that’s not the reality.
Colleges unconsciously reward students who share the same ideology as the administrators and professors — that is, the work ethic and mindset of a predominantly white middle-class background. Buffy Smith, in his book “Mentoring At-Risk Students through the Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education,” argued that “higher education is embedded with cultural biases related to race and social class … ‘at-risk’ students do not have a fair chance to earn college degrees and move up the socioeconomic ladder.”
The idea of independence in university — to find yourself, develop your own voice, follow your passions and make a change in the world — may seem intuitive and right for those who have the middle-class context. But for students with working-class backgrounds who have different rules of the game — rules that focus instead on interdependence, connecting to others and being part of a community — the resulting university experience would be vastly different, and as such, the context for academic success would differ as well.
Researcher Vincent Tinto’s leading social integration theory approaches this issue. Tinto argued that if the student’s background and attitude toward school reflect the norms and expectations of their college environment, they would have a higher level of academic and social integration. This in turn helps keep these students in school and prevents them from dropping out early due to frustration and undue stress.
Stephens et al. addresses this in the study “Unseen Disadvantage” and proposed the “cultural mismatch theory,” concluding that FGLI students underperform due to norms from their mostly working-class backgrounds mismatching with the middle-class independent norms prevalent in universities. American universities’ focus on independence does not match first-generation students’ relatively interdependent motives for attending college, and this cultural mismatch often correlates with lower grades.
Smith illustrated this with the following example: a female FGLI Hmong student who was raised in a traditional Hmong culture that emphasizes respect, deference and traditional gender roles. The student receives a C- on her first English paper and describes her hesitation to ask for help from her white male English professor. Her hesitation stems from the fact that she is not comfortable with talking to people with such high authority, an aspect that Smith labels as the student’s “embodied cultural capital.”
Thus, the Hmong student decides to start her paper earlier and get a friend to help, rather than meeting with the professor and hearing what the professor wants to see in the paper, which is what Smith calls “institutional cultural capital.” Smith also points out that the student did not consider that faculty also know and talk with each other on campus, an example of “social capital” that would contribute to the FGLI student’s future success — as recommendation letters and job opportunities are heavily based on this social capital.
The Center for First-Generation Student Success also found that, although a higher percentage of FGLI students used more financial aid services, a lower percentage also used health, academic advising and academic support services.
But even before FGLI students step foot on campus, the odds are already stacked against them. An article by The New York Times revealed that college admission officers admitted to giving preferential treatment to wealthy students despite their lower grades and test scores, due to pressures to recruit students who can pay tuition in full. Low-income students who require more scholarships and financial aid then become the lowest priority.
Studies have already shown that students’ grades are directly affected by factors such as race and socioeconomic status. This might be due to the preconceived notions and stereotypes of intelligence and academic motivation based on a student’s family background.
In one case, an underrepresented student may obtain a high score on their test but still be labeled by teachers as having low academic abilities due to race and class stereotypes. On the other hand, low-performing white students may be perceived as possessing higher intellectual capabilities due to the implicit institutional values that were validated by their teachers — meaning, they knew the rules of the game and exactly how to play it.
So FGLI students, who are struggling with not just assignments and socialization but also these unspoken expectations, are more likely to fail. Oftentimes they are perceived as “at-risk” for the university — at-risk of not graduating on time, at-risk of being culturally excluded from university life and at-risk of being academically deficient. As a result, FGLI students exist in the margins of the university’s concerns. An afterthought, if you will.
However, it isn’t all bad news. The solutions exist, and it is up to students and administrators to advocate for each other and implement changes on campus. One way to transform universities into more equitable institutions is to empower students to understand the implicit rules needed to survive in higher academia and help them develop the cultural and social capital needed to succeed.
If FGLI students can learn to demonstrate the cultural behaviors favored by professors and administrators, they are more likely to succeed. It is imperative that FGLI students understand that the college environment isn’t just a place of higher learning, but an entirely new place, with unfamiliar cultural expectations and distinct modes of conduct.
On the other hand, it is also up to administrations to adopt mentorship groups, workshops, community discussions or other methods of advocacy that allow FGLI students to understand what they did not grow up knowing. A method that explicitly teaches students how to decode this “hidden curriculum.” Only then will FGLI students be fully embraced and integrated into the core culture of the higher education system.