Why Aren't First-Gen College Students Graduating?
By Lucus Newman

First-gen students across the nation face huge challenges while trying to make their college dreams a reality. 03:57

SAN MARCOS, Texas - First-generation students now make up more than half of U.S. undergraduates, but only one-fifth of them are leaving college with a degree.

At Texas State University, 46% of students are first-generation meaning that neither of their parents earned a bachelor’s degree. The university prides itself on serving these students, but first-generation students are much less likely than their peers to complete their degrees.

The National Association of Student Personal Administrators reports that first-generation students now make up 56% of undergraduate college enrollment in the United States. But these students have the odds stacked against them. While 49% of students with a parent who went to college graduate within six years, only 20% of first-generation students make it to graduation.

Hitting Roadblocks

Even though she was a top student, Alyson Pralle-Peterson faced financial roadblocks on her college journey. (Lucus Newman)

Alyson Pralle-Peterson was at the top of her class in high school, but at the time college seemed out of reach.

“When I made top 10% that got me automatic admission to any school, and I just had my sights set on UT Austin.” she said. “I’m from a single-parent household. My mom had divorced my father like back in 2011, and unfortunately the events that happened thereafter had completely destroyed her line of credit, and so she was building that up. I didn’t have anyone to co-sign a loan with me to get me to school, and so I had to decline admission to UT Austin.”

Her situation isn’t unique.

As the cost of education rises nationwide, first-gen students have less resources to go to college. Median family income for students with a parent who earned a bachelor’s degree or higher is $90,000. For first-gen students it’s less than half - $40,000.

As incomes go down, so do the odds of graduating. The Pell Institute reports that 90% of low-income first-generation students do not graduate within six years.

Schools Stepping In

Although many colleges offer resources like tuition assistance, counseling services and tutoring, many first-generation students struggle with navigating the system to get the help they need.

Victoria Black is the chair of First-Gen Proud, a faculty committee at Texas State that helps first-generation students navigate college. She also serves as the director of PACE Peer Mentoring, often working one-on-one with students who need help. She stresses the importance of connecting first-gen students with the resources they need to stay in school and finish their degrees.

Victoria Black’s goal is to keep first-gen students in school and on the path to graduation. (Lucus Newman)

“There’s that social and cultural capital that they are lacking,” she said. “They don’t know what they don’t know. So, they may not be able to ask the questions that they really want to get to see the answers. So if a student comes in, they may not know about all the resources, or they might not know that they need those resources to be successful.”

Her experiences as a former first-gen student herself motivate her to continue advocating for first-gen students.

“There is also that resiliency our first-generation students bring,” she said. “They want to be successful, they know this is their door to a better life and a better opportunity economically for them, for their family.”

Banding Together

F1rst Bobcat Proud is a student organization at Texas State that helps first-generation students connect with each other. Twice a month the group meets to share resources and discuss strategies to stay in school. The group also serves as a support network to help manage college and family life.

Jaime Saucedo is the group’s president and co-founder. Through his own struggles, he knows how important it is to have a support network on campus to rely on.

“When I came here I felt prepared, ready,” he said.  “When I got here everything changed. I was struggling with my classes. I felt that my time had to be spent studying and learning these skills I didn’t know. It’s difficult for us to even ask, ‘How do I begin this search? How do I begin looking for these resources?’ Some advice that I would give would be to continue even though you have these boundaries and challenges that come your way. You’re not doing it alone.”

Potential students and their families tour Texas State University, a first-generation serving institution. (Lucus Newman)

Organizations like F1rst Bobcat Proud can make the difference between graduating and dropping out for many first-gen students.

Dee Dee Cooper is a member of the group and also works as a peer mentor on campus.

“I would definitely say getting involved has helped me tremendously because I’ve been able to meet people that have helped me like, continue this process,” she said. “They’ve helped me get through tough things, they’ve provided me with resources, and they’ve helped me continue my journey here at Texas state. It’s actually something I look forward to. It’s actually something I like refuse to not accomplish.”

Cooper graduates this summer and plans on continuing her education and earning a master’s degree in exercise science.

Defying the Odds

Though Pralle-Peterson, mentioned earlier, had her college plans interrupted after high school, she later attended community college and transferred to Texas State. She is currently a senior studying anthropology and eventually plans on pursuing her PhD.

Although first-gen graduation rates are still far below the national average, many continue to strive for success. Every year on campuses across the country, first-generation students are defying the odds to become the first in their family to earn a college degree.

Up Next:

Food & Culture

A Beach Bar Deep in the Heart of Texas

❮ Stories Home