The Greeley Tribune | Nov. 5, 2023
— written by Cedric Howard
This year on Nov. 8, colleges across the country are celebrating first-generation
students as a part of National First-Generation College Celebration Day. This date
is the anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which provided funding for
programs to increase access, admission, retention, persistence and graduation of first-generation
and low-income students attending institutions of higher education (IHE).
As a college administrator and first-generation college graduate, I have first-hand
experience of how higher education can become a catalyst for promoting social mobility.
When low-income, first-generation students attain a college degree, they are five
times more likely to move out of poverty. Additionally, people with a bachelor’s degree
earn nearly double what high school graduates make over a 40-year career and experience
lower unemployment rates. It's an investment that not only changes the trajectory
of students’ lives but also transforms their families and communities.
But the path to a college degree can be particularly onerous for first-generation
students because historically, postsecondary education opportunities have been limited
for certain ethnic and racial populations and those of lower socioeconomic status.
This means IHEs must be innovative in their approach to creating systems that welcome
and support these students to ensure they can take advantage of the opportunities
higher education offers — a clear pathway to explore themselves and their interests,
expand their social and cultural experiences and build a more promising career path.
Over half (56%) of all postsecondary students in the U.S. have parents who do not
hold a bachelor’s degree. According to the National Center for Education Statistics
and the Center for First-Generation Student Success Initiative at the National Association
of Student Personnel Administrators, these students face unique barriers:
- First-generation college students are more likely to come from low-income or minority
backgrounds and to be parents, caregivers, veterans or first-generation Americans.
- Twenty-eight percent of first-generation students are 30 or older.
- Forty-six percent of first-generation undergraduate college students participate in
extracurricular clubs, compared to 65% of continuing-generation students.
- Fewer first-generation college students hold formal leadership roles, conduct research
projects with faculty members, complete paid internships and study abroad than continuing-generation
At UNC, over 80% of our undergraduate, degree-seeking students are from right here
in Colorado, 42% of them identify as first-generation and 19% of them identify as
both first-generation and low-income. As a students-first university, we are deeply
committed to investing in the success of these students. For example, we recently
launched two initiatives aimed at lowering barriers to enrollment and easing the financial
burden for students so they can persist in their education and ultimately earn a college
- Our Colorado First-Year Admission Guarantee program, the only one in the state, provides a clear set of expectations for first-year
students to expedite the enrollment process for them. The value of clear admission
procedures is that it increases transparency in college admissions processes for students
and their families and is critical for promoting college as a viable next destination.
- Our Financial Aid Optimization program provides award information early and includes
helpful information for students and families on how to pay for college. Our financial
aid awarding model addresses equity gaps, recognizing that many of our students with
the highest financial need also identify as first-generation.
Financial concerns are one of the biggest barriers preventing first-generation students
from persisting in their college education. Our students are fortunate to also have
the commitment of generous donors. We solicit, receive and award hundreds of scholarships
every year, many that go specifically to first-generation students, that provide support
in a myriad of ways.
On Nov. 8, we invite everyone to celebrate Colorado’s first-generation college students
and the next generation of teachers, artists, nurses, business leaders and all other
professionals. By investing in the lives of these students, we are transforming our
communities and cultivating the leaders of tomorrow.
Cedric Howard is the vice president of the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment
Services. A seasoned administrator with over 25 years of experience, he has been recognized for his efforts to prioritize student achievement in higher education.