First Generation Students Find Upward Mobility Through College

But even considering higher education in the first place is the biggest hurdle
First Generation Students Find Upward Mobility Through College
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First generation college student Dontay Gray. (Photo courtesy First Generation)

But even considering higher education in the first place is the biggest hurdle

This is the first piece of RealClearEducation's serial coverage of first generation college students. Read the three student interviews that follow with Cecilia Lopez, Soma Leio and Dontay Gray.

Six months in juvie was a wake-up call for Dontay Gray to clean up his act. A 15-year-old gang member and drug dealer, Gray was caught with illegal possession of a firearm and faced another 13 years behind bars.

Gray was also a star athlete at Jordan High School in Los Angeles, Calif. He was one of the fastest linemen in the country and took three buses and two trains to and from school each day to play in Jordan’s prestigious football program. But Gray knew he had no future if he continued a life on the streets.

“When I was looking at 13 years, I realized right then that I could be in [prison] forever if I don’t change up,” Gray said. “I realized I can’t go down the same route, I don’t want to, I will not. It made me reevaluate my life, what was important to me, and really see that I didn’t want the path I was going on. I felt like college was the best way for me to change it, and I was right.”

Now 24 years old and starting his sixth year at Sacramento State, Gray is gearing up for graduation next May -- but it wasn’t easy getting there. He was the first person in his family to even entertain the idea of attending college, and like many so-called first generation college students, their unfamiliarity with the system make the harrowing application process and daunting cost of higher education even more acute.

His hurdles, alongside those of three other students in California, are the focus of “First Generation,” an independent film by husband-and-wife team Adam and Jaye Fenderson. The 95-minute feature narrated by Blair Underwood followed for three years the lives of four then-high school students: Gray, Keresoma “Soma” Leio, Cecilia Lopez, and Jess Chevallier in their quest to become the first members of their family to attend college.

The Fendersons started working on the film as a side project. Adam had just graduated from film school at the University of Southern California and was working full-time editing television shows. Jaye, an author and writer, also works in television production, but first stumbled into a job as an admissions officer at Columbia University shortly after she graduated from that very institution. That was where inspiration for “First Generation” began.

“The job made me realize how lucky I’d been to get through Columbia in the first place as a low-income student, just because I didn’t have all of the assistance of applying to college,” Jaye Fenderson said. “I only took the SAT once – I didn’t even know there was the ACT. My high school’s college counselor and I only met once so he could sign off on my college application forms. When he saw Columbia, he asked if it was a college in South Carolina.”

During her time at Columbia’s admissions office, Jaye Fenderson saw many applications from low-income students who didn’t have the resources in high school to get to Columbia. Her love for film and television – and husband Adam’s experience in the field – prompted the two of them to document how first generation students make it to college in the first place.

They started working on the film in 2007, and for years worked without funders or studio support. They submitted grant application after grant application, only to receive rejections. They were ready to accept that no one was interested in their project until they connected with the Lumina Foundation, a private nonprofit that supports postsecondary education attainment, on Twitter via a Lumina intern. Lumina granted $25,000 to the film.

“We need to make sure that students either have a whole lot of direction or are given opportunities to get on the right path,” said Haley Glover, Lumina’s strategy director and director of convening strategy. “This film shows the human face of this very real problem. A lot of students out there look just like those four kids who did not have college in their families, their home foundation relying on mom and dad to tell them what to do. There has to be more from everyone else.”

The film’s big break came in 2012 when Adam and Jaye were invited to screen their film at Generation TX San Antonio, a grassroots movement that promotes college- and career-readiness across Texas. There, “First Generation” caught the eye of a Wells Fargo representative, who reached out to the Fendersons about sponsoring an initiative that would take their film and cause nationwide. By the end of 2013, Wells Fargo and the Fendersons had set up the “Go College!” movement.

Alongside the students featured in the film, the Fendersons are taking the film to high schools across 10 to more than 10,000 students. A Q&A session follows each screening, and attending teens are offered information on scholarship opportunities and planning resource from partnering organizations, said Valeria Esparza, assistant vice president for Wells Fargo Education Financial Services.

“We want to bring the awareness to inspire students and families to consider college as an option,” Esparza said. "Higher education can change life trajectories. I can attest, myself being a first generation student coming from a low income background. Even though I had to borrow for college, it was the best investment of my life.”

Annual research has shown that workers with a bachelor’s degree on average earn over $1 million more over a lifetime than those with just a high school diploma or equivalent. Data published in May by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that in 2012, 73 percent of young adults with a bachelor’s degree worked full time, compared with 60 percent of young adults with just high school credentials. And young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned a median income of $46,900, 57 percent more than a median $30,000 for young adults who only completed high school.

To be sure, sometimes the realities of the disadvantaged might be too much to overcome. Recent research by economists Greg Duncan Richar and Murnane found that wealthier families increased investment in their children's "enrichment activities" by 151 percent betweeen 1972 and 2006, compared with 57 percent for low-income families. And in the end, poor kids who do everything right still struggle get ahead of the rich kids who do everything wrong -- rich high school dropouts are about as likely to still land on top as it is for poor college grads to remain on the bottom.

“We’re not saying college is a necessity for everyone, but the most economical way to break the cycle of poverty is to get students with a college degree,” Adam Fenderson said. “Low-income and first generation students are in a unique position where they don’t even understand that there is so much money out there for kids, especially those from low-income backgrounds, to go to college that most can go 100 percent free and graduate debt free. Many schools have loan-to-grant programs that convert federal loans to school grants. Even if students have to take out some loans, they’re much less and more manageable than the mythical $100,000 of debt students purportedly graduate with.”

Average student loan debt levels have, in fact, increased over the years. The median amount of education debt among 20- to 40-year-olds more than doubled between 1989 and 2010 – from an inflation-adjusted $3,517 to $8,500. But research from the Brookings Institution released this summer report that increased debt can in part be attributed to Americans spending more to attain more education – and the increase in later earnings pays for the additional debt incurred. There is also no evidence, according to the Brookings research, that there is a significant group of borrowers with huge loads of debt – just 2 percent of young households owed more than $100,000 in student loans in 2010.

And NCES figures show that increasingly more low-income students are applying and receiving financial aid. For academic year 2011-2012, 92 percent of dependent students from families falling in the lowest 25 percent income bracket applied for or received aid, compared with 86 percent in the 2007-2008 school year. Still, a significant portion of low-income students are spooked by loans and grants: more than 36 percent of undergraduates from families falling in the lowest quarter of earnings said they didn’t apply for financial aid in 2011-2012 because they didn’t want to take on the debt, a full 18 percent said they simply didn’t have information on how to do so, and over 43 percent of those students said they thought they were ineligible for aid.

“Education debt is one of the best you can have, compared to a house loan, car loan, or credit card debt where you get nothing back. The returns on your money in education is fantastic,” Adam Fenderson said. “Of course we must be careful that people aren’t taking out too much, but to say it’s bad to take out loans for your education is silly – it’s hands-down a good investment.”

A greater challenge for first generation students – and for education borrowers – is earning the degree after the heavy investments of time and money. Hundreds of thousands of Americans drop out of college and carry education debt with no degree, an even greater risk for first-generation students who are “at a distinct disadvantage” for retention and graduation from higher education institutions, according to a 2013 University of Central Florida survey, as they receive much less emotional and informational support from their families than continuing-generation students.

“One of the biggest hurdles for first-generation students is they often don’t know how to ask for help, and mentorship programs can make a huge difference. That’s why we made our film the way we made it – so other students can relate to the struggles and challenges the students in the film were facing,” Jaye Fenderson said. “Did all of our students in the film reach their potential? Not necessarily. But they all made it to college, and they’re each different successes. Not all make it, but they portray a spectrum of success that occur for first generation students when they first get to college.”

To see how the students featured in “First Generation” found their own successes through higher education, RealClearEducation caught up with them over the summer. Jess Chevallier was unavailable for interview, but she has earned her associate’s degree from Bakersfield College, attained her registered nurse certification, and is working in the field. Check back this week to read interviews with Soma Leio, Cecilia Lopez and Dontay Gray and see how the students have been doing since they graduated high school five years ago.

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