It happens at elite colleges and local community colleges. Students known as "first-gens"—i.e., the first generation in their families to go to college—walk onto campus and do…what?
If they are at LaGuardia Community College in New York, they are mostly likely taking remedial courses to get them ready for the college-level classes the school offers. LaGuardia President Gail Mellow says that 90 percent of the students who enroll at LaGuardia need some form of catch-up. Perhaps not coincidentally, 90 percent of them are minorities. Many of them didn't finish high school and are enrolled courtesy of a GED diploma.
A few (very few) disadvantaged students might find themselves in a much different environment. Franklin & Marshall College is an elite, liberal arts institution in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where its president, Daniel Porterfield, proudly searches out Pell Grant-eligible students and minorities who can succeed there. These kids have academic chops, but they may need help with everything from traveling to and from the rural college on breaks to coping with being away from home for the first time. It is a new experience for them, unlike their colleagues whose parents went to college.
Porterfield says elite schools like his should actively seek out first-gen students and view them as unique opportunities to create leaders, not as people that need hand-holding to get through the experience.
Both LaGuardia and Franklin & Marshall are tackling the same problem—how to produce a new kind of college graduate from a population that in the past has not gone to college. But let's face it: It's at places like LaGuardia where the bulk of the disadvantaged, minority students will get their first taste of post-secondary education. As such, Mellow argues that community colleges should get the bulk of the resources should to educate the first-gens. At Franklin & Marshall, 17 percent of the students are Pell Grant-eligible, compared to almost all of them at La Guardia. Porterfield doesn't dispute this, but he says elite colleges should still be in the business of finding "extraordinary talent" in these populations.
The White House has its own program in the works to address this very issue. White House Domestic Policy Director Cecelia Munoz says the Education Department's new college ranking system, slated to be up and running by the 2015-2016 school year, will judge colleges based on how accessible they are to a range of students and whether those students finish and can pay back their loans on time. The ranking system is deliberately designed to compete with the college rankings of U.S. News and World Report, which place a premium on selectivity. Munoz says that's the wrong way to look at colleges.
Munoz acknowledged that growing and diversifying the college-going population is tough problem with no easy answer. The White House simply wants to spur the conversation. The economy depends on it. "Everybody understands that this is a conversation we need to have, and it's hard to get there," she said.
What is the difference between first-gens and other college students? Is the Hollywood version of a backpack toting 18-year-old campus freshman be an anachronism? What can elite colleges do to recruit nontraditional students, and how successful can they be at it? What can state and local governments do to support community colleges that educate the bulk of the first-gens? Is there a way to change the equation and make sure more of these first-gens are at elite schools, and maybe even more "traditional" students are at community colleges?
(Munoz, Mellow, and Porterfield all presented their views at National Journal's Next America conference last week examining how minorities and disadvantaged students get to college and graduate.)