Chronicle of Higher Education: First-gen college students at higher risk of falling through the cracks as pandemic continues

I’m a first-generation college student, so I know full well the challenges such students face as they navigate the college experience.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s story on the potential for these students to fall through the cracks as the coronavirus pandemic continues comes a day after I pointed out why an open college campus this fall is critical in those places where health conditions allow for it. (And I emphasize where health conditions allow for it; some people appeared to have missed that important distinction.)

As the Chronicle notes,

Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, said the barriers facing first-generation students amid the pandemic are exacerbated versions of what they’ve always faced in higher education.

“College has unfortunately been more of a privilege for wealthier students, and institutions haven’t set up structures to help first-generation students who often come from lower-income backgrounds,” she said. “There’s this sort of whole set of assumptions about how you approach activities that these students don’t necessarily have.”

I once described being a first-generation college student to someone this way: Imagine you (who comes from a family with at least one college graduate) and I are need to get from City A to City B, which are roughly 400 miles apart.

You and I are handed the same map. You’ve been taught about what to look for on a map and what the various icons mean. As just one example, you know the difference between interstate highways and state routes. You also have a GPS that warns you of traffic problems and delays because of road work. You also have someone who can help you read the road signs that pop up along the route.

I have none of those benefits.

You and I might end up getting to City B, and we might end up getting there at roughly the same time, but the tools, skills and people that helped you are going to make your trip less stressful than mine.

Regardless of how your college or university begins this academic year, at some point all of us will be using remote delivery of instruction. (And I hope I’m as wrong as can be in making that prediction.) Health conditions will fluctuate, and they’re not likely to allow any college to make it through the academic year without a forced closure, even if it’s for only a few weeks. It’s imperative that programs be in place to ensure that first-generation college students can succeed off campus in much the same way they would on campus.

The map they were handed will look much different if there’s a mandatory detour to remote delivery and those students have no clue how to most effectively get past that detour.

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