Financial aid isn't the main problem for first-gen students

It's not just money problems that keep many first-generation students from graduating

While financial aid may help first-generation students pay for college, affordability is only one of many factors inhibiting their success in higher education, Donald Earl Collins writes for The Atlantic

The concept of "free college" has been making headlines lately, with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's plan to eliminate college tuition for many students. But making college more affordable does not address the numerous barriers that first-generation students face on the path to completion, argues Collins, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, University College.

"In addition to financial challenges, first-generation students are navigating a system that is new to them, that taxes them experientially, psychologically, and emotionally," Collins writes. 

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He would know—as a first-generation student entering the University of Pittsburgh in 1987, Collins was forced to contend with family issues, a bout of homelessness, depression, and feelings that he did not belong on campus. Collins' experience is far from unusual for first-generation students, many of whom come from low-income or minority backgrounds.

Financial aid can mean the difference between staying in college and dropping out for first-generation students, but much more needs to be done to ensure their success. Collins notes that many first-generation students simply do not know where to turn for help, even when colleges have a wealth of resources available.  

But not all colleges have sufficient programs or counseling to help first-generation students navigate issues beyond financial aid. First-generation students also need support from faculty, graduate students, and peer mentors, which can be hard to come by at institutions with little racial or socioeconomic diversity. 

Holistic support systems are crucial for keeping first-generation students in college. Between 11% and 25% of all first-generation students graduate with a bachelor's degree in six years, and between 38% and 47% drop out, according to the Pell Institute. Money can definitely serve as a barrier to completion for first-generation students from low-income backgrounds, but colleges must be aware of all the other challenges these students face just making it to class every day. No amount of financial aid can remedy feelings of isolation or self-doubt that plague many students who are the first in their families to attend college.

"Though examples of success abound, the availability of programs for first-generation students even today is haphazard, and would require state-level and collaborative efforts beyond the appropriations of a Hillary Clinton administration and a bipartisan Congress to address," Collins concludes (Collins, The Atlantic, 9/5). 

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