Understanding first-generation college opportunities

Four college students standing outside in a group and talking

In my Sociology of Education course at the University of Colorado Denver, I get a lot of students who are teachers or who are studying to become teachers. One of the questions they ask most often is why there is so much emphasis on first-generation college students (i.e., a student who is the first in his/her family to go to college) — what is so “special” about this population that we continue to talk about them and study them? It’s a great question, and it actually has a lot to do with our understanding of social class as it pertains to education.

The first thing we have to learn is that social class is cyclical, generation to generation. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s definitely the dominant pattern. Compare working-class families (i.e., where the parents are professionals, such as electricians or retail managers, but have no formal education beyond high school) with middle-class families (i.e., the parents have college degrees and work as teachers, newspaper editors, or business professionals, to name a few). Incomes are generally comparable, though middle-class families tend to earn a little more than working-class families. Researchers like MacLeod (2008) and Lareau (2000) have shown us that families in these two different strata tend to cluster amongst themselves, but separately. They live in different neighborhoods, their children go to different schools, and so on. In terms of dealing with the educational system, from preschool to college, these two groups see things differently. Working-class families are generally of the opinion that education is the school’s responsibility. After all, they pay their taxes, and what they are paying for is the opportunity to have professional teachers teach their children. Middle-class families tend to see education as more of a partnership. Bear in mind that most middle-class parents have the same level of education (a bachelor’s degree or higher) as the teachers who work in their children’s schools. These parents attend parent-teacher conferences more regularly, help more with homework, and are involved in fundraising opportunities at their children’s schools. Middle-class parents are more involved in their children’s schooling in general, and can even, at times, be a bit overbearing with teachers.

Children, especially in their younger years, learn most of their behaviors from their parents. They emulate them. They see the world through the lens of their parents. American society has placed a high value on having a college degree, and those who do not have one are often at odds with the educational system, mostly because it is a foreign landscape to them. They haven’t learned to, as sociologists say, “negotiate the bureaucracy” of education.

SIDEBAR on “negotiating the bureaucracy”: I worked with a school administrator a few years ago who told me about a parent, who happened to have a working-class background, who was unhappy with the grades her daughter had received in a few of her high school courses. The expected process in the bureaucracy of schools is that she should take this up with each teacher first, and if she didn’t get results, move up the chain to the principal, and so on. Not knowing this process (I would suspect, because her parents didn’t know it) she immediately called the district superintendent to complain. The superintendent’s assistant didn’t even know what to do with the call, and tried to direct the parent back to the school. The school principal said the matter needed to be taken up with each teacher. After a period of frustrating back-and-forth, the matter was resolved. But not without a lot of difficulty, wasted time, and embarrassment.

Children from either working-class or middle-class backgrounds are going to learn (or not) all about the process and value of schooling from their parents. When it comes time to decide on whether to go to college, many working-class parents — who have done well for themselves without a college degree — won’t see the value. What’s more, if someone said, “your child should go to college,” they have no idea where to begin. How do you find the right college? What’s the application process? How do I pay for it? How do I apply for financial aid? How does my son or daughter register?… The prospect of college can seem completely overwhelming. For middle-class parents, they may not have all the answers, but having been to college themselves, they know how to find them.

Now, as I said, American society highly values a college education. It is becoming increasingly harder to get a well-paying job without a college degree. The gap between working-class and middle-class incomes is increasing. So, college degrees are important. But the cyclical nature of social class makes it so that it is less likely that a child from a working-class family will attend college than a child from a middle-class family.

How do we break this cycle? There are a number of solutions, ranging from early childhood literacy to year-round schooling. But one solution that has grabbed the attention of parents and policy makers alike is making college more accessible (and affordable) for all — including children from working-class families. Such a student will need patience and perseverance, because it’s no small feat to learn to negotiate the bureaucracy in addition to all the other work college requires. But in the end, this person will be better equipped to help his or her own children to succeed in school, not only K-12 but in college and beyond.


About the Author
Rob Kadel, Ph.D.

Rob Kadel, Ph.D.

Rob Kadel is a former research scientist with Pearson, and focused on measuring the effects of eLearning tools, tasks, and practices on student outcomes. He also focused on the use of social media for teaching and learning, one-to-one computing initiatives in schools, and gamification of higher education learning experiences. Prior to joining the Pearson, Dr. Kadel was a manager on the Academic Training and Consulting team at Pearson eCollege. He worked as an independent research and evaluation consultant for educational technology programs for six years and has also held faculty positions at Penn State University and Johns Hopkins University. In addition to his Pearson duties, he continues to teach online for the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Denver. He holds a doctorate in Sociology from Emory University.


Works Cited

Lareau, Annette. (2000). Home advantage: Social class and parental involvement in elementary education (2nd edition). Oxford, UK: Rowmand & Littlefield Publishers.

MacLeod, Jay. (2008). Ain’t no makin’ it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (3rd edition). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.