Moving Beyond Access: College Success For Low-Income, First-Generation Students

Engle, Jennifer; Tinto, Vincent
Publication Year:

With major strides in access to postsecondary education for all students in recent decades, it is tempting to assume that such progress has erased disparities in college enrollment and completion in the United States. Yet despite having one of the highest college participation rates in the world, large gaps persist in terms of access to and success in higher education in this country, particularly for low-income, minority, and first-generation students. Given the pressure to remain competitive in the global knowledge economy, it is in our shared national interest to act now to increase the number of students who not only enter college, but more importantly earn their degrees, particularly bachelor’s degrees. Due to the changing demographics of the United States, we must focus our efforts on improving postsecondary access and success among those populations who have previously been underrepresented in higher education, namely low-income and minority students, many of whom will be the first in their families to go to college. In order to inform the efforts of educators and policymakers to improve college access and success, the Pell Institute has produced a report, funded by the 3M Foundation, that examines the current status of low-income, first-generation college students in higher education. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education datasets, we describe the ways in which this population participates in higher education, including persistence and degree attainment rates, and compare their participation to other students, including those who are neither low-income nor first-generation. We discuss the barriers that low-income, first-generation students face to achieving success in college, as well as the strategies that colleges and universities can pursue to address these barriers and improve students’ chances of earning degrees. We also offer recommendations for institutional and government actions that could go a long way towards closing the access and success gaps that exist today for this doubly-disadvantaged population.

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