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Each year, thousands of first-generation students enroll in higher education institutions across the country. Due to a myriad of factors, however, many first-generation students do not succeed in college. Only 11% of first-generation college students that enter college obtain a postsecondary degree four years later. Increasingly, stakeholders are working to help reverse this trend and ensure that more first-generation students are graduating from college.

Researchers, higher education institutions and advocacy groups all play a key role in ensuring that more first-generation students are graduating with a postsecondary degree. Numerous scholars have researched the academic and social supports that most contribute to first-generation students’ success. Many higher education and community leaders have implemented institutional initiatives and community-based programs. Key advocacy efforts such as I’m First, First in the Family, and the Alliance for Low-Income First-Generation Narrative supports first-generation students by providing resources and developing an online community to share stories. While a step in the right direction, the primary focus of these initiatives has been on the experience of first-generation students while they are in college. This narrow focus misses the experiences of an important group: first-generation college graduates.

Recently, four groups came together to address the unique needs of this population. On October 18, 2016 three Ivy League alumni associations (Brown, Colombia, Princeton) and the Washington D.C. Chapter of the CHCI Alumni Association presented: Being First Gen: Financial Empowerment-the second in a series of panel discussions focused on the experiences of first-generation college graduates. As only an initial attempt to highlight the importance of this population, policymakers, researchers and higher educational leaders can all do more to ensure the ultimate success of first-generation college graduates.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Policymakers. The looming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act provides a key opportunity for policymakers to develop sound initiatives that can help support first-generation college graduates. Like many other college graduates, first generation students face high student loan debt totals. Current strategies like income-based repayment and public service loan forgiveness and proposed initiatives like Debt-Free College for All are a step forward but policymakers should examine how to ease the burden of both federal and private loans.

Researchers. While an abundance of research exists on the experience of first-generation students, little research exists on the experience of first-generation college graduates. More research is necessary to understand the experiences of this unique population. Scholars should focus their research questions on areas that are often cited as the benefits of pursuing a postsecondary degree: employment, civic engagement and financial well-being.

Higher Education and Community Leaders. In recent years, a number of institutions of higher education and communities have launched initiatives targeted at ensuring that first-generation students feel supported on the path to completing their postsecondary degree. Leaders should work ensure that these initiatives also target and provide supports to first-generation college graduates.

As more low-income, minority and first-generation students enroll in postsecondary education, it will become increasingly important to ensure that they complete college. There is also a clear need, however, for first-generation college graduates to also receive the supports and resources necessary to transition to becoming successful professionals. Without these efforts, it will become increasingly difficult for first-generation college graduates to fully develop into productive and active members of society.

The next Being First Gen series is scheduled to take place in March 2017.