Public Community Colleges: Creating Access and Opportunities for First-Generation College Students

By Everett, Julia Brookshire | Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Public Community Colleges: Creating Access and Opportunities for First-Generation College Students


Everett, Julia Brookshire, Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin


Introduction

America's colleges and universities have long been viewed en masse as some of the best in the world (Carey, 2004). Carey (2004) wrote that "Higher education, and the promise it represents, has long been one of the main drivers of opportunity, social mobility and economic progress in our society" (p. 1). According to the American Association of Community Colleges (2014), approximately 45% of all college students attend community colleges. That number will only rise if President Obama's plan to make a 2-year college education "free" to approximately 9 million students over the course of 10 years is endorsed by Congress and the individual states (Jaffe, 2015). Community colleges have been instrumental in expanding access to higher education by enrolling groups of nontraditional students such as members of ethnic minority groups, low-income, first-generation, or underprepared individuals (Bragg, Kim, 8C Barnett, 2006). Currently serving 36% of first-generation students (American Association of Community Colleges, 2014), community colleges are a good "fit" for such individuals. However, while admitting nontraditional students is an important aspect of the community college mission, if these students are not retained or do not transfer, then neither the students nor the institutions have been successful.

First-Generation College Students

What is a first-generation college student? According to Ward, Siegel, and Davenport (2012), the first-generation college student label was first conceived in the 1960s to determine student eligibility for federally funded programs to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These programs defined a first-generation student as one whose parents had not obtained a postsecondary degree (Ward et ah, 2012). Although some modern scholars still use that definition (Housel 8C Harvey, 2009), others have suggested the first-generation student is one whose parents have not attended a postsecondary institution (Ward et al., 2012). Whether he or she attended college or is a college graduate, in the role of parent, one would mentor the child, provide advice concerning cultural and academic experiences related to college, and provide guidance through necessities such the application process or time management. Students with college-educated parents are at an advantage when it comes to enrolling in and completing college. This assumption is based on an idea known as social capital (Saenz, Hurtado, Barrera, Wolf, 8C Yeung, 2007). Social capital is "the value of a relationship that provides support and assistance in a given social situation" (Moschetti 8C Hudley, 2008, p. 26).

Access

Access can be defined as the conditions and factors that facilitate and encourage or prohibit and discourage a person from attending college. Although most Americans dream of attending college, access to a college education is limited for various reasons (Bragg et ah, 2006). Those reasons might include college costs, discrimination, and precollege academic preparation (Bragg et ah, 2006). Heller (2001) divided access into five categories: financial accessibility; geographic accessibility; programmatic accessibility; academic accessibility; and cultural/social/physical accessibility.

Financial accessibility. Financial access relates to the availability of financial resources needed for an individual to attend college (Heller, 2001). The majority of first-generation students are low-income (Tucker, 2014). Bradley (2011) noted that, "While tuition at four-year colleges is increasing at a dizzying pace, community colleges offer an affordable alternative for millions of students" (p. 6). According to the American Association of Community Colleges (2014), the average annual tuition at a public, in-district community college was $3,260, yet the average annual tuition at a 4-year public, in-state college was $8,890. In addition, 58% of students attending community colleges received aid, with 38% receiving federal grants, 19% receiving federal loans, 12% receiving state aid, and 13% receiving institutional aid. …

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