Director of Communications
First-Generation College Students View Education as Their Ticket Out of Poverty
Students for Education Reform releases first-of-its-kind national poll of first-generation college students, bringing these students’ unique voices into the education policy debate.
New York, NY – May 23, 2017 – Students for Education Reform (SFER) today released the First-Generation College Student Survey, an unprecedented national poll asking first-generation college students, who are the first in their family to attend college, for their unique perspectives on their K-12 experiences and on education policies, including school discipline, school choice, and education standards.
The First-Generation College Student Survey, which was funded by The Carnegie Corporation of New York and conducted by Mercury Public Affairs, found that 72 percent of first-generation college students view education as the best pathway out poverty. These students are a diverse group, with 62 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches and 37 percent living in a home where a language other than English was spoken.
“For too long, students – and particularly low-income students and students of color – have been left out of the education reform debate, even though students have the greatest stake in education policy,” said Alexis Morin, Executive Director and co-founder of SFER. “This survey brings the unique voices of first-generation college students to the table for the first time, and shows that while too many of these students faced barriers to opportunity in the K-12 system, they’re passionate about breaking down those barriers for the next generation of students.”
Students for Education Reform, a national organization of college students fighting for educational justice in their communities, advocates for education policies that put students first. First-generation college students are clear in the kinds of policies needed to help other students like them succeed: 71 percent believe that students should be held to high academic standards, and 67 percent believe that all students should learn the same material, regardless of income or background. The majority of first-generation college students believe that teachers make a difference and should be hired, fired, and paid based on their performance. Students think teachers’ performance should be evaluated by a number of factors, including student evaluation (74%), student growth and learning as measured by tests (64%), and peer review from other teachers (54%). Also, 63 percent agree that teachers should receive higher salaries. Critically, in addition to testing, 74 percent want student evaluations to play a role in teacher reviews.
The survey also includes findings on students’ experiences with safety and discipline in school. When reflecting on their K-12 experience, nearly 1 in 4 first-generation college students reported that they did not feel safe in school, and almost 1 in 3 reported that they did not feel that school was an emotionally safe or inclusive place. Among students who were severely disciplined based on harsh policies in public schools, a large majority found it difficult to succeed in college. Most of those who were disciplined for non-violent offenses, and more than one third of students who were suspended received no other intervention – like a warning or alternative discipline measure – prior to suspension.
“It’s important to remember that these reflections on our K-12 public schools are coming from students who are often ‘success stories’ in the eyes of their districts – yet they experienced significant obstacles in schools,” added Morin. “These students have worked hard to overcome many challenges to get to college. Their perspective reminds us why it’s so critical to remove obstacles to opportunity and help more students from all backgrounds get to and through college.”
The survey also highlights first-generation college students’ support for public school choice – 74 percent agree that families should be able to choose the best school. More than half believe their educational experience would have been better with school choice, and 44 percent would have attended another school if it had been an option. However, only 32 percent reported that their district offered school choice. Among those who had to take remedial courses in college to cover material they should have learned in their public high school curriculum, 62 percent would have chosen a different school. The top three reasons students cited for wanting to go to a different high school were academics, better teachers, and safety.
“College is difficult, but the courses are not the most difficult part about being a first-generation college student,” said Brenda Contreras, student at Sacramento State University and member of Students for Education Reform. “I wish I would have learned that college isn't just showing up to class and doing the work. As a first-gen student of color, college has been a whole new world that I was not prepared for. Balancing work, school, internships and a social life is not possible without proper guidance. It is extremely easy to fail if students like us who have never been exposed to higher institutions do not have prior knowledge of what we will be dealing with in college.”
The survey also outlines specific suggestions from first-generation college students to improve preparation for college. When asked which life skills and subjects they wished were available in their high schools, the majority wanted access to financial literacy classes, job interviewing and resume building skills, and stress management training.
The full survey results are available online.
About Students for Education Reform
Students for Education Reform (SFER) develops college students into grassroots organizers who fight for educational justice in their communities. Our experiences and stories of overcoming educational inequality are undeniable and validate the demand for transformative change in our K-12 system. We fight for high academic standards, access to quality teachers and the right for families to choose the best school for their child, especially in communities that have historically been left behind. ###