The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

first generation college students
Smith College junior Audrey Olmos-Govea is the first in her family to go to college. Credit: Arianna Skibell

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Audrey Olmos-Govea sat in her first sociology class at Smith College and couldn’t believe what she had just heard. As she remembers it, a guest lecturer turned to the class and said: “You understand, you’ve all been to Europe, right?”

Olmos-Govea watched most of her classmates nod in agreement, and at that moment experienced the culture shock she’d been warned about. The Pomona, California native had flown only once, for a college-sponsored tour. Europe was out of the question in her home; she is first in her family to attend college and the $15,000 a year her mother earns working as a balloon artist is the family’s sole income.

Her hand shot up in the air. “I haven’t been to Europe,” she said. “My family didn’t take vacations. I worked every summer.”

The lecturer turned beet red and apologized. Olmos-Govea felt embarrassed. “I thought, what have I done?’’ she recalled recently. “I’ve just isolated myself in this small group of people. But after the fact, I knew it was the right thing to do.”

By the time she arrived on the idyllic New England campus with just two suitcases and a backpack (her roommate’s belongings required two cars), Olmos-Govea, who is Mexican-American, had already overcome tremendous odds that set her apart from the majority of first generation students, who are more likely to be found at community colleges. Now a junior, she came from a town where 38 percent of residents over 25 did not graduate high school; the majority don’t speak English at home. A mentor encouraged her to apply to Smith, a private all-girls college with a combined annual cost of $63,950, not including books. A generous financial aid and scholarship package made it possible.

In recent years, though, a growing number of costly, selective four-year institutions are trying to help high-achieving first generation students like Olmos-Govea survive and thrive. Nationally, just 31.6 percent of first generation low-income students (and 47.8 percent of low-income non-first generation students) who enroll in a four year college will graduate within six years, according to the most recent data from the Pell Institute. Those in the bottom income quartile, like Olmos-Govea, have only a nine percent chance of graduating by age 24.

At Smith, where 19 percent of this year’s freshmen are first generation, efforts include a designated orientation program, encouraging first generation students to connect and learn about campus resources before classes begin. The optional program includes activities like scavenger hunts and group discussions. “It gives them an opportunity to reflect on their experience and identity as a first generation college student,” said Donique McIntosh, this year’s orientation coordinator.

Many of these colleges – among them Amherst, Hamilton and Franklin & Marshall and some large public universities – are recognizing the array of challenges that keep first generation students from graduating. In addition to financial strain, such students may be less prepared for the demanding course loads, have difficulty navigating the complicated college system and be afraid of asking for help.

“Last year I was talking to a student who was homesick. I started talking to her like I would any other homesick student,” said Marge Litchford, assistant dean of students at Smith and founder of their first generation orientation program. “But then I realized she wasn’t going to see her parents for the whole year because she couldn’t afford to fly home. And they couldn’t fly to visit her because they were undocumented.”

Related: Whose job is it to “nag” first generation kids into applying for college?

Finding kindred spirits

first generation college students

Over Labor Day weekend in Northampton, about twelve new Smithies sat in a circle inside a small green house, listening to Smith President Kathleen McCartney recount her own experiences as first in her family to go to college. McCartney said her guidance counselor declined to write her a letter for Dartmouth, instead encouraging her to apply to local state colleges. Because Tufts University was around the corner, McCartney applied and was accepted.

She described the struggle of living at home and working part time while taking classes. After her talk, one student asked if the group could take a photo with the president.

“I could tweet it out,” McCartney said to enthusiastic agreement. “What should it say?”

Students volunteered suggestions, and they decided on: “Hanging with my people @smithcollege #FirstGenSmithies”

Ángel Pérez, vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Connecticut, said he sees more support and acceptance for first generation students now than when he graduated from Skidmore in 1998.

“When I went to college I don’t know that I would have broadcast that I was a first generation college student, or even fully understood what that meant,’’ said Pérez, who grew up in the South Bronx. “I’m just so shocked that students are willing to talk about it so freely.”

Related: Can a small, rural college that eliminated merit aid survive — and thrive? Hamilton College president makes the case

first generation college students
Smith College junior Angela Lool hopes to attend medical school so she can help her father, who hasn’t seen a doctor in over 20 years. Credit: Arianna Skibell

Smith’s Angela Lool, a chemistry major from Los Angeles, says there are still difficult situations that unfold “behind the scenes” which she keeps to herself. For example, her parents don’t speak English, so it’s up to her to complete all financial aid forms every year.

“My parents see that I get frustrated and then my mom starts crying and she says, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t.’ And then my dad tries to calm me down. Sometimes it ends bad because we just start yelling at each other,” Lool said. “I know it’s hard for them because they can’t understand. We get through it, but it’s hard.”

Drop in the bucket?

Overall, first-generation students are hardly well represented at competitive four-year institutions. A University of Michigan study found that when looking at the bottom half of income earners, only 14 percent of their children attend the most selective colleges. A mere five percent of those from the lowest income quartile attend elite schools. There are exceptions: in California, nearly half of freshmen in the UC system this fall are among the first in their family to earn a degree, according to University of California data.

Some small private colleges that are making an effort to recruit and retain first generation students are reporting some success. Franklin & Marshall, where some 17 percent of this year’s freshmen class are first generation students, expects 87 percent will graduate within six years – the same as the general population. At Amherst College, 17 percent of this year’s freshmen class is first generation and 94 percent are expected to graduate within six years – not far from the 96 percent rate overall.

Some of the efforts come at a time of increased attention to first generation students from federal and state policymakers, foundations and President Barack Obama’s push, along with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative and the “I’m First,’’ video she released in 2014 describing her own first generation experience at Princeton.

All efforts matter, said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who does not think the contributions of four-year schools should be dismissed as ‘a drop in the bucket,’ because the majority of low-income students don’t attend them.

“I still think it’s important what small liberal arts colleges do to improve socioeconomic diversity, because our leadership class disproportionately comes from a fairly small set of selective four-year colleges,” Kahlenberg said. “Our democracy is stronger if more of our leaders have experienced firsthand the struggles that come with having grown up in a family where the parents haven’t gone to college.”

Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, said she wishes community colleges had resources to provide intensive individual supports like a first generation orientation.

“It would require me to do something special for 67 percent of my students, so it doesn’t make the same amount of sense when you are the majority at an institution,’’ Mellow said. “It does make sense at a place like Smith or Vassar, where there are many legacies, and where generations have gone to college. But I want the children of the students I serve to not be first generation. You break that down by helping these students succeed.”

How first generation students are grouped and singled out once they arrive on campus can be important to their success, said Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, who notes that some might prefer not to be. (The Spencer Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)*

“It’s a delicate thing,” McPherson said. “Whether anyone intentionally does it or not, they’ll be lumped in together because of their common self-awareness that they don’t really fit in,” he said, adding that such students may not want to be perceived as weaker or more vulnerable.

Related: Can $25 million get 500 poor kids to and through college? One billionaire is trying

At Smith, where the orientation program began five years ago, officials say graduation rates for first generation students have been consistent over the last 10 years: 86 percent in four years. Litchford said the program is aimed mostly at increasing their sense of belonging and empowerment, although she hopes the next step for Smith is a first generation coordinator available to students year round.

first generation college students
Smith college’s idyllic New England campus is located in Northampton, Mass. Credit: Arianna Skibell

Lool, who took advantage of Smith’s first generation orientation, said if the program weren’t there, she’d probably be ashamed of revealing that her parents didn’t go to college.

“It made me feel like you’re not alone. It’s okay to be first generation,” Lool said. “When I talk to my parents or anyone back home about college, they’re really proud of me. And when they feel proud of me, I feel proud of myself.”

Pérez of Trinity wants students to know that it’s okay to ask for help. “Often students who are first generation become almost terrified because they feel like maybe everyone around them knows something that they don’t,’’ he said.

Pérez speaks from experience. “I grew up in a culture as a Latino male where my parents always said the only counseling you need is God and your family. And so I would never have thought to go to the counseling center. What we’re trying to do on our end is begin the conversation really early and give them a heads up of what might come.”

And sometimes, he added, “The best support can sometimes come from students themselves.”

Olmos-Govea’s sister Emily, a freshman at Smith, learned this firsthand when she arrived on campus last month, without her parents. At the financial aid booth, a woman told Emily – who, like her sister, is attending Smith with financial aid and scholarship help – that she owed a balance of over $2,000 for Smith’s health insurance, on top of a late fee.

“I saw Emily’s face fall and turn red when the woman accused us of not paying on time,” Olmos-Govea said. “It was nerve-wracking. It’s just as an example of how scary this whole process can be for people like Emily and I who have no clue how to navigate this stuff.”

The sisters explained that they qualify for that fee to be waived, and they had submitted the paperwork a month before. The woman confirmed that Smith had made the error. But before Emily signed a document stating that all the paperwork was in order, Olmos-Govea asked the woman to write a note confirming they didn’t owe any money.

Over the past three years, Olmos-Govea says her initial discomfort has been replaced by newfound confidence. And Smith has learned lessons as well; spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel said in a statement that she was glad Olmos-Govea spoke up freshman year and hope it helped shape classroom discussion.

“Being here,’’ Olmos-Govea said, “has taught me how to handle myself in those situations. It hasn’t made me any less scared. But Smith has taught me to question … it’s up to me to voice what I’m feeling, and advocate for myself. Because nobody else is going to do it.”

*This story has been updated to note that the Spencer Foundation is a funder of The Hechinger Report.

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

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *