Section: News

First-generation graduation rates higher than U.S. average

First-generation students at Kenyon graduate at higher rates than first-generation students nationwide. While this statistic is not surprising — Kenyon’s six-year graduation rate is 30 percent higher than the national average — it is significant that first-generation students at Kenyon graduate at similar, or even higher, rates than students with college-educated parents.

First-generation students are commonly defined as those whose parents have not completed bachelor’s degrees. First-generation college students are less likely to graduate than students with college-educated parents, according to a recent study by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. The drop-out rate for first-generation students who started college in 2003 was 33 percent, compared to 14 percent for students with college-educated parents.

At Kenyon, 89.3 percent of the 2003 cohort graduated within six years, while 87 percent of first-generation students in the cohort graduated within the same amount of time, according to information obtained from the Office of Institutional Research.

Jacky Neri Arias ’13,  assistant director of the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (ODEI), said these numbers make her feel like the College is “doing something right.”

Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Professor of English Ted Mason cautioned against the validity of the Education Department’s study because it does not factor in complicating variables such as gender and socioeconomic status. It also does not control for the kinds of schools that students in the study attended, which have different graduation rates overall.

There are several programs in place to assist first-generation Kenyon students with the challenges they face throughout their time at college. The Kenyon Educational Enrichment (KEEP) program offers students of color and first-generation college students the opportunity to take classes at Kenyon the summer before their first year. Recognizing Each Other’s Ability to Conquer the Hill (REACH) is a peer-mentoring program for underrepresented students. First Steps is a support program for first-generation students specifically.

“When you decide that you want to diversify your student body, the first step is to get a diverse population here,” Mason said. “Another step is, ‘They’re here, but what is it about this place that might raise things for which students might need support?’”

REACH hosts workshops and programs throughout the year to help students with tasks such as writing resumes, studying and self-care. Brittany Beckley ’20, student coordinator for the REACH program, said 20-25 people typically attend these events.

REACH students can apply to the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for funds to pay for textbooks, travel and emergency situations.

Kristen Edgeworth ’20 and Paola Liendo ’20, who are first-generation students, said that KEEP was helpful during their transition from high school to college, but their experiences as first-generation are still marked by alienation from parents and peers.

Edgeworth, Liendo and Neri Arias said they struggle to translate their experiences in college to their parents. “It leads to a disconnect where a lot of other people can maintain better relationships with their families once they’ve gone to college, and it’s much harder if your parents can’t relate to what you’re talking about,” Edgeworth said.

Neri Arias, who is first-generation, said many parents of first-generation students don’t relate to the all-encompassing nature of college life. “If your parents didn’t go through the college experience, they can’t possibly understand what it means to do anything outside of the classroom,” Neri Arias said.

First-generation students made up 10 percent of the 2013 Kenyon cohort. On a campus where approximately 90 percent of students have parents that received bachelor’s degrees, Liendo and Edgeworth felt their identity was made invisible.

“I feel like people don’t really have misconceptions about first-gen college students because they don’t really think that they’re real,” Liendo said.

Edgeworth and Liendo recounted a recent conversation where several students were agreeing that college had not lived up to their expectations. “I was like, ‘I didn’t have any expectations about college, I didn’t even know if I was going to go to college,’” Edgeworth said.

Liendo felt these students assumed being a first-generation student had little bearing on one’s college experience. “There seemed to be this idea between the non-first-gen students that their experience wasn’t different from our own,” Liendo said. “To say that we had similar experiences is dishonest.”

Edgeworth said it is frustrating to watch other students take the opportunities they are given for granted.

“We aren’t afforded that same offhanded, ‘Oh yeah, of course I’m in college,’” Liendo said.

Taking advantage of the College’s first-generation support systems takes time and energy. Beckley said she spends a significant portion of her time using the resources at her disposal: She goes to professors’ office hours, the Writing Center, ODEI, REACH workshops, the Career Development Office and much more.

Beckley said this level of engagement is atypical, but all of the first-generation students she knows put in enormous amounts of work to stay afloat. “My peers wouldn’t just sit there and struggle and not look out for help,” Beckley said.

Edgeworth said she wishes there was more education around what it means to be first-generation.

“It’s frustrating to constantly have to remind myself and reassert to other people that this is a different world and there are so many other challenges associated with this whole thing,” Edgeworth said.

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