Like many newly minted college graduates, Toby Irenstein is preparing for her future.
Unlike many recent graduates, Irenstein, 21, can’t use her family experience as a guide to this period in her life. Irenstein was the first in her family to go to college and soon she’ll be embarking on another experience as a first-generation student: Law school.
“Like many of the other first generation students, I don’t know at all what to expect,” Irenstein said. “I hope that it will be awesome. I’m also prepared for the reality.”
At the start of her college career, Irenstein didn’t embrace her first-generation, low-income background. “It was very much part of my identity that I was trying to hide,” Irenstein said.
But as she started to lead dadvocacy her junior year aimed at pushing her school to provide more resources and support to first-generation, low-income students, Irenstein began to appreciate the particular perspective she was bringing to college.
“It works now as a motivator to continue to go into school and push myself to learn and grow,” she said. Ultimately, that experience with activism was part of what inspired Irenstein to become a lawyer — she wanted to better understand the ways she could use the law to advocate for the vulnerable and hold institutions accountable.
The success of students, like Irenstein, is one of the clearest examples of higher education’s power to boost social and economic mobility. Colleges have noticed; over the past several years, they’ve increasingly lured and celebrated students whose parents didn’t attend college, thanks in part to urging from first-generation students themselves to recognize their particular experience and challenges.
But new data suggests that graduating isn’t enough for first-generation college students to catch up economically to their peers whose parents did graduate from college.
Households headed by first generation college graduates have an annual median income of $99,600 and median wealth of $152,000, according to an analysis published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.
‘Who your parents were, what your origins were, they tend to matter for household income, for wealth.’
— Richard Fry, a senior economist at Pew and the author of the analysis
That’s compared to an annual median income of $135,800 and a median wealth of $244,500 for households headed by a college graduate who have at least one parent who graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
The Pew report, which is based on an analysis of data from the Federal Reserve, adds to the growing body of evidence that certain groups reap more out of their investment in college than others.
“Even when you get out there into adulthood — this is an average statement — but who your parents were, what your origins were, they tend to matter for household income, for wealth,” said Richard Fry, a senior economist at Pew and the author of the analysis. “Getting a bachelor’s degree — it’s not the great leveler.”
First-generation students are more likely to use debt to pay for college
The reasons why a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough for a first-generation college graduate to catch up economically to their peers whose parents went to college echo the systemic factors that can make it difficult for many Americans to move up the economic ladder.
Pew found that first-generation college students are more likely to be Black or Hispanic, demographic groups that due to centuries of racism, have historically had less access to wealth.
In addition, because by definition, first-generation college students’ parents didn’t graduate from college, their parents are less likely to have access to the income and wealth some families use to pay for college.
First generation college graduates were more likely to have taken on student debt to finance their schooling than their peers whose parents graduated from college.
First generation college graduates were more likely to have taken on student debt to finance their schooling than their peers whose parents graduated from college and when they borrow they tend to borrow more, according to Pew. Among first-generation college graduates who took on debt, 65% borrowed at least $25,000 compared to 57% of second generation college graduates.
“One of the reasons they have more wealth is that they didn’t take on as much student debt in getting their college degree,” Fry said of second-generation college students. “Their parents, on average, have greater household income and wealth and therefore have greater ability to help their children finance college.”
In addition to broader economic factors, there are elements particular to the higher education system that limit the ability of a bachelor’s degree to put first-generation college graduates on equal economic footing with their second generation peers.
The Pew analysis found that first-generation students are less likely to attend the kinds of colleges that have the resources to get students to graduation and into well-paying jobs.
Other research indicates that white and wealthier students are more likely to have access to resources like test-preparation services and advanced placement courses that boost chances of admissions at resourced, and well-networked colleges that can increase a graduate’s chances of landing a well-paid job.
At the same time, the schools that serve the bulk of first-generation, low-income and underrepresented minority students are less likely to have access to the funding that can be critical to providing support services, streamlined class schedules and other resources that are key to graduating and landing decent paying jobs after leaving school.
College experience can vary depending on college exposure
What’s more, the experience of first-generation college students at school is often different from their peers who have some family experience with college. The hidden curriculum, which is often crucial to thriving at college, and can seem obvious to students whose parents attended — from knowing the dorm bed requires a twin extra long sheet to feeling empowered to attend a professor’s office hours — isn’t obvious to students who haven’t had as much exposure to college.
And because first-generation college students may not have as much household wealth available to pay for college, they’re often juggling many responsibilities while in college that can get in the way of networking or taking on an unpaid, but resume building commitment, said Chris Sinclair, the executive director of FLIP National, a nonprofit organization that works with first-generation and low-income college students across the country.
‘There’s just not that same social mobility, that same upward mobility for students because there’s so many hurdles to overcome.’
— Chris Sinclair, the executive director of FLIP National, a nonprofit organization
“They’re too busy in survival mode,” said Sinclair, who started advocating around these issues as a first-generation college student at Columbia University in the mid-2010s. “There’s just not that same social mobility, that same upward mobility for students because there’s so many hurdles to overcome.”
There are steps institutions could take to mitigate these challenges, Sinclair said. While many colleges offer some targeted career services to this group, leveraging first-generation alumni and doing more to support first-generation students while they’re in school, so they have the time and resources to prepare for their post-graduation life and career.
“Institutions are just content with saying ‘congratulations you made it,’” Sinclair said. “Is it enough to say that they’re getting the education and they’re going to have this degree that’s going to open doors for them, is that enough?”
Employers also have a role to play, Sinclair said. For example, they could do more targeted recruiting of first-generation college students and provide more support for these graduates to help them navigate unwritten codes of post-college life.
“Once you’re a first-generation college student everything you do after that, your first generation in everything you enter,” Sinclair said, whether it’s graduate school or working in a career that requires a college degree.