A Long Way From Home

A Long Way From Home

First-generation college students face obstacles but find their own ways to thrive

By Ruth Jacobs | Photos by Fred Field


 
The benefits of a college education are commonly understood. A college degree means more professional options and increased financial security. College graduates' salaries exceeded those of high-school graduates by 61 percent in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But for Cabada, college was more about opportunity and independence.

Since he didn't aspire to making a lot of money and knew he didn't have a support system to fall back on, Cabada wanted to avoid taking out loans. "At some point I actually questioned whether college would be a good idea because I would have to pay back the loans,— he said.

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,School was my haven,Š said Victor Cabada ,05 of his high school years. Now the Los Angeles native works with high school students as an Americorps*VISTA member in Fort Kent, Maine.
Photo by Fred Field
Colby's aid package meant no loans—and this is exactly the direction in which the College hopes it can continue moving. "There's a kind of a general institutional sense of obligation by way of the notion of opportunity and access,— said President William D. Adams.

Making Colby accessible to qualified students, regardless of their finances, has become a major initiative in the next phase of Colby's growth. The College is able to offer competitive aid packages to students in need but continues to strive to increase access for low-income students. "We've never focused on [first-generation college students] as a group that we either track separately or strategically are attempting to attract,— Adams said. (Colby is not alone; first-generation students are rarely tracked by schools or by the government as distinct group, leading to incomplete data on their backgrounds and on the group historically.)

"However,— Adams continued, "we are attempting to attract and recruit and enroll students of high academic ability who also have high financial need.—

While a college education offers benefits, colleges also benefit from the presence of these students. "I think we agree that [the high-ability, high-need] quadrant of the applicant pool or the prospective student body is not as well represented here as it should be. So it's a dimension of the case for diversity,— Adams said.

First-generation college students bring a richness to the campus that may not always be visible but is crucial to a diverse student body. Said Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Parker Beverage: "We're trying to bring kids with different backgrounds, with different world experiences, with different academic interests, with different religious backgrounds, so that when they room together they learn new vocabulary, so to speak. They learn about different cultures, about different challenges that families face.—

The challenges often mean first-generation students need exceptional perseverance to make it to a school like Colby. Because his parents had not attended college, Cabada had one strike against him. In 2002, 37 percent of students taking the SAT had parents whose highest degree was a high school diploma. Another study found that of those who make it to post-secondary schooling, 21 percent enroll in four-year institutions—and fewer attend selective private colleges. Add the fact that he is Latino and from a low-income background, and Cabada belonged to every group that, according to a 2004 study, made him more likely to lack "college knowledge,— including how to prepare for higher education, how to apply, and how to understand financial aid.
 
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