Amid the various criticisms of higher education, some of them warranted, others off the mark, one development may not have received the attention it deserves: the expansion of the numbers of college students whose parents had not themselves attended college. At institutions such as George Mason, the changes are genuinely interesting, and arguably encouraging.
I must note that mason is not all alone here, a number of peer institutions report similar developments. This means, among other things, that some recent comment (New York Times and elsewhere) about higher education simply maintaining inequality really need to take new data into account. I focus here, however, on the Mason experience as an example; frankly, some of us have been startled as well as pleased by what the recent data show.
Mason has long welcomed a fair number of first generation students. Location in a region of immigration, diversity and population growth provided an obvious spur. So did relatively low costs and reasonably high quality. For some students, Mason’s close connections with Northern Virginia Community College were (and are) an important factor as well (though not, of course, for first-year students).
In 2003, 26% of our freshmen were first generation. Five years later, amid overall enrollment growth, the percentage had inched up to 30%. But in the last five years there’s been something of an explosion, with the percentage now at 40%, again amid substantial overall enrollment growth and, I must add, improvement in incoming grade point averages and SAT scores as well.
In one sense, again particularly for universities like Mason in terms of precedent and location, this is exactly what should be happening. Many college-educated parents have cut their birth rates, in principle leaving space for others. Immigrant families now have children reaching college age in growing numbers. Asian immigrants continue to send above-average percentages of kids to college, but an even more important and newer trend sees Latino families matching “whites” in overall attendance rates. But the fact that the changes are explainable should not mask their importance: we’re witnessing a significant surge of education-based mobility. It’s interesting that so much of this is hitting 4-year colleges directly.
Of course the trends bring some worries. Some first generation college students need new kinds of support mechanisms; our student life folks are intentionally adjusting accordingly. There are concerns about retention, though so far Mason’s enrollment uptick has been accompanied by higher retention rates as well. Finances can be strained; not all first generation students are financially vulnerable, but some surely contribute to figures about student debt or delays in completion because of work or family obligations. One of the reasons to highlight changing patterns at places like Mason is to make sure that all of us are aware of this aspect of our clientele, so we can be on the lookout for any accompanying issues.
Still, the patterns are encouraging, not just to the institutions involved but really to society more generally. Our systems may well be flawed, but access has not been lost. We can hope for even wider results of the new surge in the future.