We are only months into a new administration, and even though crucial issues like education are at the forefront of national debate, student voices are stunningly absent. Academics, politicians, think tanks, and teachers fill the dialogue, but where is the student perspective in all of this? Especially excluded from the conversation are the voices of first-generation college students like me. First-generation college students are the first in their family to attend college, and their achievements represent generations of sacrifice and the promise of upward mobility. In spite of our successful accomplishments and progress in pursuing the American dream, our viewpoint does not have enough influence in conversation about the American education system.
34 percent of undergraduates were first-generation college students in the 2011-2012 college year. As a group, we face unique issues and obstacles: The majority are from low-income families and are more likely to come from low-performing schools. Leaving our distinct firsthand experiences and valuable perspective out of the equation means ignoring a sizable hole in discussions about education generally, and more importantly, where the system falls short in preparing students who may need the most support.
At Students for Educational Reform (SFER), we recently conducted a national poll of 1,000 first-generation college students to present evidence-based facts on what students want and need. First-generation college students are a diverse group with a clear vision of what’s needed to help other students like us succeed. There are specific changes we want to see reflected in the education system, which are based on the hardships we face before and during college—and which point us to the strengths and often-overlooked weaknesses in a system that was largely never built with black, brown, and low-income student success in mind.
The majority of first-generation college students struggle with financial difficulties: 62 percent of the students SFER polled received free lunch, a federal benchmark for poverty. Family background may mean first-generation college students are even more committed to achieving academic success: 72 percent see education as the best pathway out of poverty. Learning how to effectively support and prepare us as driven students to pursue our ambitions is impossible without our input. With our economic future on the line, first-generation college students must have every opportunity to succeed—and a seat at the table to break down barriers to success.
Despite the obstacles we face, 71 percent of first-generation college students agree that they want to be held to a high academic standard. We are determined to achieve our goals and pursue a promising future, and we don’t shy away from a challenge. In fact, 67 percent of first-generation college students believe all students should learn the same material, regardless of income or background.
First-generation college students also have strong opinions about the education policies that help us succeed. One important policy we support is school choice. The SFER poll found that 75 percent of first-generation college students believe that families should be able to choose the best high school for them. School choice can dramatically alter the academic programs, educational resources, and college preparation a student receives. The ability to choose the right school, however, is a privilege only available to 32 percent of students. This points to a gap between what students say they need and what the education system provides them in reality.
School choice is just one important factor in educational success for first-generation college students. These perspectives are undeniably important to consider when trying to improve our education system. To disregard student voices, particularly the voices of first-generation college students, is unacceptable. Giving us a seat at the table and executing the lessons we have for elected officials, policy wonks, and activists marks the difference between stagnation and progress in providing fair and equal public education.