Nonprofits step in to support college students who need it most

Debbie Chen had always struggled with her schoolwork. So when she arrived at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Chen — whose parents never went to college — worried she might have trouble juggling her assignments and other campus activities.

By her second semester, Chen had a mentor and had joined a group of about 20 other undergraduates who meet monthly to discuss the issues confronting first-generation and low-income students. They talk about everything from time management to financial aid to class requirements, connecting with others who face the same challenges but don’t have support networks back home.

“It feels like a very safe environment,” said Chen, who has just finished her first year. “You get to see the same people and talk about any problems you might be having. It’s a built-in safety net.”

The program isn’t run by the school. It was set up by Let’s Get Ready, one of a growing number of outside organizations stepping into what advocates say is a vacuum of on-campus support for students like Chen, in spite of universities’ promises to help them.

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“Colleges think that they are already providing these services,” said Lisa Castillo Richmond, executive director of Graduate NYC!, an initiative that began five years ago to help more City University of New York students earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees and has now added a peer mentoring program on a handful of campuses. “But the reality is a lot of their students are falling through the cracks.”

Fewer than one in 10 dependent students with family incomes below $34,160 a year earn bachelor’s degrees within six years of starting college, and that figure that has remained virtually unchanged since 1970, according to the Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

By comparison, more than three-quarters of students with family incomes of $108,650 or above earn bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 24, up 37 percentage points over the same period.

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“We say that education will lead to mobility, but, in fact, the higher-ed system is structured in such a way that makes it very difficult for first-generation students to move up,” said Joshua Steckel, a high school counselor and co-author of “Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty.”

“Until colleges begin to realize that first-generation students face a host of unique issues, those graduation rates aren’t going to go up,” said Steckel, who sits on the board of Let’s Get Ready, a New York-based nonprofit that also offers SAT preparation and college counseling to low-income high school students.

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“While academic readiness matters a lot, the reason students are failing has little to do with academic readiness,” he added. “It’s because the system is stacked against them.”

Low-income, first-generation students often encounter strong headwinds on the way to their degrees, especially at elite universities. Some struggle to scrape together enough money to buy books, food, or even bus fare from home. Others might feel overwhelmed if English is not their first language. Many are pulled between their lives on campus and the needs of their families back home.

Let’s Get Ready set up a mentoring program at UMass Amherst as a test case in New England after realizing that, of the people it was helping get into college, only half were actually finishing their degrees. The organization also has college coaches at four schools in New York and will be expanding to other campuses in the fall.

“Programs like these are growing because the conversation is starting to shift from college access to college success,” said Andrew Gallagher, who directs the Boston office of the Posse Foundation, which helps students from urban public schools build support networks in college.

This has become especially true now that more jobs require bachelor’s degrees, he said.

For Chen, Let’s Get Ready provides a mentor who checks in with her periodically to make sure she’s on the right track. Usually, it’s just a text message asking how she’s doing, but even that simple interaction lets her know that someone is looking out for her. While Let’s Get Ready helps organize the meetings Chen attends, most of the counseling is done by older students from similar backgrounds who went through the Let’s Get Ready program in high school.

“It has lessened the stress and anxiety of college,” said Chen, who is from Brockton, Mass.

Peer-to-peer interaction like this can go a long way to help low-income, first-generation students realize they can survive college, according to advocacy groups like Let’s Get Ready and Posse. These organizations also note that creating a place where these students feel like they fit in is a key piece of lowering dropout rates.

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“At predominately white institutions, there is a culture shock,” Steckel said. “They find themselves to be the only student of color and that can lead to a lot of insecurity. They constantly ask themselves, ‘Do I really belong here?’”

For these students, college advising needs to touch on more than just what classes are required to earn degrees, he said. It’s about fostering relationships on campus with people who understand the challenges that they face.

“The very nature of being a low-income, first-generation student is isolating by definition,” said Matt Rubinoff, founder of the Center for Student Opportunity, another nonprofit that runs an online community network to support undergraduates whose parents haven’t gone to college.

“Some schools get it and are investing in resources specifically targeted to this population,” Rubinoff said. “But we need them all to get it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.