According to data collected by UW-Madison from 2006-’11, the average graduation rate of students was 56.8 percent in four years and 81.9 percent in five years. However, these numbers look drastically different for first-generation students, as only 46.2 percent graduate in four years and 74.7 percent graduate in five years.
Shouldn’t students’ chances for success at UW-Madison be the same, regardless of their families’ educational background?
Forbes reports that the median household income for students with parents that have earned a degree is $99,635. For families of first-generation students, the median income is $37,565. To put that in perspective, the Office of Financial Aid estimates the cost for Wisconsin residents attending UW-Madison for one year, including tuition, room and board, books and supplies and other expenses, is $25,699.60 — just about $12,000 shy of an entire year of income for the families of first-generation students.
As a result of this financial barrier, many first-generation students need to work one or more jobs in order to offset the costs of tuition and other living expenses. Working, attending classes and staying on top of schoolwork can place significant stress on first-generation students that many of their non-first-generation peers do not have to worry about.
“When you’re working to financially support yourself due to being a first-generation student, it can be really, really difficult. So you kind of have to get a thicker skin and sometimes take some hits in certain areas such as social life, work or grades,” said Sean Durbin, a first-generation student and UW-Madison junior.
First-generation students face many of the same obstacles and stressors as their peers but don’t have the same guidance and resources of family members who’ve been through the college experience. Many don’t know what to expect at all when coming to college.
“Everyone [in my family] expected it to be like high school. So I thought ‘OK, it’s going to be like high school.’ And it was not like high school,” said Dominique Perry, another first-generation college student and UW-Madison junior. “They didn’t understand the struggle college was. They definitely expected me to get straight As in college.”
Perry, like many other first-generation students, doesn’t have her parents’ advice to rely on when she runs into difficulties in college. If first-generation students cannot receive collegiate support and guidance from their families, then it is the university’s duty to help guide these students.
The Center for Educational Opportunity (CeO) is the only resource on campus that specifically serves first-generation students, in addition to students whose families meet a certain income level and students with disabilities. They provide academic advising, STEM advising, tutors, a peer mentoring program and other support programs for the students that utilize the center.
Claudia Mosley, director of the CeO, stressed the importance of its role in providing a support system for first-generation students.
“When you don't have a legacy of higher education in your family, you're not getting a phone call saying, ‘OK, go to your instructor and if you don’t like what they say then go to the head of the department’ … they’re not getting that kind of conversational advice,” she said.
Mosley also pointed out university requirements that have unintentional consequences on first-generation students. UW-Madison’s nursing and engineering programs have strict course or credit requirements each semester. As a result, first-generation students are effectively blocked from pursuing these majors, as balancing such an intense course load with long work weeks is not realistic.
“An inadvertent outcome or consequence of this is that our students have to make difficult choices,” Mosley said. “They have to resolve that they're going to take a slower time with the major or if that is not possible because of the instructors and policies of that college, then they may have to consider alternate majors.”
Over the past five years, first-generation students, on average, have comprised 34 percent of applicants to the upper division nursing program and 31 percent of the incoming cohort, according to Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, Karen Mittelstadt. Mittelstadt noted several services such as the Nursing Learning Center, a low academic advisor-to-student ratio and a largely need-based scholarship program as ways the Nursing School provides support for all students, including those who are first-generation.
While the Nursing School has strong support services to help all students, it does not change the fact that students who are first-generation face unique, singular challenges that other students with a legacy of higher education cannot relate to. Because of this, there needs to be more of an effort for stringent academic programs, like nursing, to help serve the needs of those who may need the most assistance and guidance.
If intensive academic programs are not structured in a way that makes them truly accessible for all, the university is failing its first-generation students that have worked just as hard, if not harder, than their peers.
First-generation students may also experience the “imposter syndrome” phenomenon where they feel like they do not actually belong or are not wanted in a space which can lead to a further sense of isolation. In addition to social barriers at school, first-generation students may face additional strain on family relationships.
“You almost feel guilty coming to school,” Durbin said “It seems like [families] feel like you’re just ditching them and going on to bigger and better things and leaving them behind, when that’s not always the case.”
As of 2016, there were 29,536 undergraduates at UW-Madison. Of them, 5,333 were first-generation college students. The CeO is currently only funded to serve 435 students — just 8 percent of that population.
Because this is the only service specifically geared toward first-generation students, the university also emphasizes other services that first-generation students should utilize. Wren Singer, the director of Undergraduate Advising, notes that the whole system of undergraduate advising has been enhanced. In fact, her position was created just five years ago in order to make sure students are getting the support they need from the university. The goal of this is “academic advising being better for everybody which will also help first generation and other students who come with certain disadvantages to do better,” Singer said.
In regard to the graduation gap, Singer asserts that the gap is getting narrower over time because of these current structured efforts to make a change, and that it will take time before we start seeing a decrease in the gap as a result of current programs. Advisors cannot just blatantly ask students if they are first-generation, so instead they should ask questions related to their family and home situation which will help advisors get a fuller picture of students and be able to better advise them.
But in order to better serve first-generation students, more funding needs to be allocated to the CeO so it can serve more first-generation students. They are the only resource specifically dedicated to this, so it is crucial that it receives enough support and funding in order to have the best resources and services for the students who need it most.
Even though the CeO is a great resource for first-generation students, first-generation students still need to meet with academic advisors for their specific major, meet with professors and TAs in office hours and utilize other services outside of CeO. Professors and academic advisors are not specifically trained to be sensitive or understanding to the situations of first-generation students. Mosley stressed the importance of training and awareness among all advisors on campus in order to help first-generation students succeed.
The university has made strides, though, in showing its support of first-generation students. At the start of the fall semester, the university began Badger Promise, a program that provides up to four semesters of free tuition for first-generation students who have transferred from any of the two-year UW colleges. The program aims to make UW-Madison more accessible for those who may have thought they would never be able to attend our state’s flagship university.
While there is certainly more work to be done in order to fully support first-generation students, the university’s creation of the Badger Promise is a step in the right direction. No student should feel like an imposter at a university they’ve worked so hard to attend. No student should have less of a chance for success than their peers. The right to a college education, and to attend a prestigious university like UW-Madison, should not belong to an elite class of people — it should be accessible and available to all who have worked hard to be accepted.
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