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Safety and school choice: What first-generation college students say would have better prepared them for college, according to new poll

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | June 13, 2017

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“I didn’t always feel safe at my school,” Thomaiyah Reeves said in the survey. (Courtesy: SFER)

First-generation college students nationwide say that feeling safer in high school and having the opportunity to attend a non-traditional school could have prepared them better for college, according to a new poll by Students for Education Reform.

The poll surveyed 1,000 first-generation students, of which 40 percent were white, 30 percent Latino, 20 percent black, and 10 percent Asian. More than 80 percent attended traditional schools, and more than half believe their school experience would have been better if they had access to school choice. The results were discussed Tuesday on a national conference call with SFER, an organization of college students fighting for educational justice. The students were polled last September.

“I was the first of my family to attend college. My school did not have math and science courses that would have helped prepare me for college, but a school nearby did. I think that students like me know far better than politicians what I need from a school, and I should be permitted to make important choices about my education,” C.J. Parker, a student at Northeastern University polled in the survey, said Tuesday.

Almost a quarter of those responding said they didn’t feel physically safe at school.

“I didn’t always feel safe at my school. And it seemed that some of us were given harsher punishments. I was suspended in my school, but a friend did the same thing and only got detention. Missing all of those days of school affected my grades. It really set me back,” said  Thomaiyah Reeves, a recent high school graduate from North Carolina.

Of those polled, 37 percent were from a non-English-speaking household.

“I didn’t know any English until second grade, and I didn’t get promoted from the EL program until seventh grade and wasn’t able to take regular classes until then,” said Brenda Contreras, a  Latino first-generation college student from Northern California attending Sacramento State University. “I was in my junior year in high school when I found out I wasn’t on track to college, that I started lo learn about AP classes, about ways to get my GPA higher and to apply for college.”

• Read more: First-generation Latino college students want to make it through college but need more support to graduate

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ The Condition of Education, only 16 percent of Latinos graduate from college. In comparison, about 41 percent of whites completed college.

The poll highlights that only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation college students will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school. Also, first-generation students are more likely to attend two-year and for-profit schools than their peers.

Among the respondents, 62 percent received free or reduced-price lunches, so it’s not surprising that 72 percent said they believe a college education is their “ticket to get out of poverty.”

“When I started college and compare myself to other students, I realized I went to a very different high school, where I was never challenged. Never had any homework, never took any test at that level,” said Contreras.

She was not alone: More than 70 percent of the students polled believe they should have been held to higher standards.

The poll conducted by SFER in partnership with Mercury Public Affairs had an opportunity for students to give specific suggestions to improve high school preparation for college. Some of the things they wished high school would have provided knowledge about were, first, financial literacy, followed by resume building, job interviewing, stress management, and study skills.

“This poll shows us the struggles first-generation college students are going through. They need to be included in the conversation on how to improve higher education and what is their way to success,” Alexis Morin, executive director of SFER, said Tuesday on the conference call.

Nationwide, 34 percent of undergraduates were the first in their families to go to college in 2011-12, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“They’re telling us what is not working for them, what would they change,” Morin said. “Our goal as a country is to make sure every student from any neighborhood, any city, every racial-ethnic background, any income bracket, has an equal opportunity to succeed in college.”

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