First to college, but . . . 

In The First-Generation College Experience, Kavitha Cardoza travels to Michigan State with Christopher Feaster (see A college dream lost) to explore why he failed there, like so many students from low-income, non-college-educated families.

He joined an interracial fraternity and made friends with other first-generation students, who also were struggling academically. An adviser tried to help. But going from a small, supportive, all-minority high school to a huge Midwestern university was too much.

“I went in with everyone having these titanical expectations, not to mention a full-ride scholarship. And I’m just like, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, I don’t know, that’s a lot,’” he says.

. . . At the time, his mother had moved out of the homeless shelter and into subsidized housing, but was still struggling.

“Honestly when I was here, my main concern was ‘Is mom going to be OK? Does mom have the money to pay the bills this month? Is she going to go without hot water? Is she going to get evicted?’ That was my worry every day,” he says.

“It’s not uncommon to have students who have had some family trauma that they’ve not dealt with, fall into a depression and stop attending classes,” Monica Gray , programs director for the College Success Foundation, tells Cardoza.

First-generation students need academic and emotional support to succeed in college, says Deborah Bial, the president and founder of The Posse Foundation. It takes more than a scholarship.

The foundation sends low-income, first-generation students in groups of 10 to colleges all over the country. Ninety percent earn a degree.

Diana Sanchez and Bernice Hodge, who grew up in Washington, D.C., go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison on full scholarships. Because they’re Posse scholars, they meet with a tenured faculty member weekly for the first two years. They must ask each of their professors to fill out mid-semester evaluations.

“College is so overwhelming, things happen like nonstop. Deadline this, deadline that, sometimes it doesn’t cross your mind,” says Bernice.

“Also, sometimes you question yourself. These kids might be smarter than me; I don’t see anyone else scrunching up their face. So sometimes it’s also sort of like a pride thing. I don’t want the professor to think that I don’t get it,” Diana adds.

Bernice had a 4.2 grade point average in high school, but professors said her writing wasn’t up to par.  “And I just remember thinking back to high school. Why didn’t anybody catch these mistakes or why didn’t anybody correct me before I got to college?”

Diana’s classmates have traveled to places she’s only read about, she says.

“I’m taking a political science intro to Africa. And I only know the information that I’m learning in the class, but these people, they either had a specialized course in high school or they went to Zimbabwe.”

In her freshman year, her mother, who doesn’t speak English, fell ill, says Diana. “She actually was crying in the voicemail and was like ‘I’m lost, I don’t know where I am right now, come home. I miss you.’”

When her mother fell into a coma last semester, Posse staffers talked to her professors, who let her catch up on assignments while she was home. Diana is now back at UW.

Success in numbers

It takes a “posse” to create a college graduate: By sending disadvantaged students to college ing groups of 10, the Posse Foundation has boosted success rates, reports the New York Times.

Posse chooses students with leadership, problem-solving and teamwork skills through a very competitive process.  A group of 10 meets during their senior and through the summer, then goes to the same elite college.

Posse Scholars’ combined median reading and math SAT score is only 1050, while the median combined score at the colleges Posse students attend varies from 1210 to 1475. Nevertheless, they succeed. Ninety percent of Posse Scholars graduate — half of them on the dean’s list and a quarter with academic honors. A survey of 20 years of alumni found that nearly 80 percent of the respondents said they had founded or led groups or clubs. There are only 40 Posse Scholars among Bryn Mawr’s 1,300 students, but a Posse student has won the school’s best all-around student award three times in the past seven years.

This is not about the SATs’ predictive power, as the Times seems to think. It shows that college students do a lot better if they have friends who support their academic goals and no financial worries.

DePauw was so impressed by the Posse Scholars’ success that the college now assigns all first-year students to small groups.  They meet regularly with an upper-class student as mentor “to talk about topics like time management, high-risk drinking and preparing for midterms.”