New research shows that first-generation college students often fall behind in grades and graduation rates. This calls into question the traditional narrative of the Trojan Family — a community in which all students are supported regardless of their family history. Indeed, it takes more than resources aimed at first-generation students for those students to succeed in a collegiate environment.
The greatest asset of first-generation college students is their background — which often offers racial and socioeconomic diversity. However, the culture of social and academic spaces favor a learned social prowess in lieu of qualities such as acquired knowledge or work ethic, facilitating a potentially adversarial, rather than inclusive, environment. By inadvertently disregarding the importance of social and cultural challenges, institutions of higher education such as USC allow campus climate to restrict these students from obtaining the “full college experience” critical in establishing networks with other students and professors.
This is not to say that first-generation students are incapable of success at institutions of higher education or that all of them face the same social and economic barriers. It would be far too reductive to conclude that first-generation students simply need their hand to be held in order to succeed because by gaining acceptance into college in the first place, they have proven to be more than capable of achievement. However, it is important to note that while success is not impossible, college life is catered to those who have been groomed and fine-tuned for academia throughout their development. Usually, continuing-generation students come from environments that bridge the gap between acquired knowledge, experience and norms, implied social rules and unspoken expectations of university life. It is certainly more difficult for first-generation students to adjust because they start at a significant disadvantage in comparison to their peers.
According to a Stanford University study, curriculum and subsequent discussion about class and racial differences can reduce the collegiate achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation college students. USC has a number of strategic initiatives aimed at helping first-generation college students, which includes a student task force, a college student-parent program, a mentorship program and a one- or two-unit sophomore seminar course. While early intervention on behalf of the University seeks to teach and enable students to better suit the demands of higher education, if the only resources are through student initiatives, the hostile social environment makes these skills pointless.
The standard USC class setup is not designed for first-generation college students, so while programs are helpful, students may be bogged down due to the non-inclusive and intellectually narrow curriculum commonplace inside the classroom. The issue is the culture of academia does not capitalize on what these students bring to the table — diversity of perspective and experience can be dismissed as trivial and consequently disregarded. Resources for first-generation students should not be confined to resources designed by the administration, but need to be solidified and integrated into all classroom environments.
Outside of the mentor-mentee program, the current attitudes, behaviors and expectations of other students create a campus climate not conducive to the needs of diversity and inclusion in social settings. First-generation college students make up about 14 percent of the student body, so the majority of college students are inherently socialized differently and possess a certain amount of privilege, which is often jarring and not understood by students who are the first in their family to go to college. If the sense of confidence and understanding is confined to mentorship spaces only, first-generation college students will be isolated in a campus climate that is cold and unwelcoming.
One of the selling points for admission is the promise of a private university with a comprehensive, closely-knit and accessible social network. For USC, it is the promise of the Trojan Family. To truly facilitate all members of the Trojan Family, it needs to be inclusive of students from all types of backgrounds, as well as address the social and cultural impediments that diminish the quality of education for first-generation students.