First-generation college students face additional difficulties

This year is the first in which the Office of Admissions has tracked first-generation status

Regular decision admit Arianna Ulloa was ridiculed every time she brought an SAT Subject Test preparation book to her classes at Thomas Jefferson High School in Tampa Bay, Fla. During her time in high school, only one other person in her class took these tests — and it was only at Ulloa’s urging that it happened.

When Ulloa met people on a free college tour as part of a minority recruiting program, she felt a culture shock as her peers told her about their test-prep courses, numerous college visits and summer programs.

As a first-generation college applicant who moved to the United States when she was seven years old from Lima, Peru, Ulloa often felt alone when filling out college applications because her single mother couldn’t help with the process.

Ulloa is not the only one who has felt this way. According to the Office of Admissions, 14 percent of Penn’s newly admitted Class of 2016 are first-generation college students whose parents have not attained college degrees.

Over the past year in particular, Penn has been no stranger to some of the issues that first-generation students may encounter.

Penn first started using the Common Application to track first-generation students this year, and also hosted the East Coast premiere of the documentary “First Generation,” which followed four first-generation students throughout their college application process.

“Here’s what we were successful at: a few years of outreach, establishing benchmarks and learning more about the applicant beyond admissions,” Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said. “I’m handing a class over to people and I’m very interested in what those experiences are like, and that helps us with recruiting students, admitting students, and trying to yield students.”

Furda said though the Office of Admissions does not know the quantitative effects of these efforts on the number of first-generation students applying and matriculating, he is proud of what Penn has done on this front.

The Office of Admissions partners with community-based organizations like QuestBridge and The Posse Foundation to recruit students who are from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, which often overlaps with parents’ lack of college degrees, Furda said.

Ulloa said she didn’t consider applying to Penn until she attended a local Penn information session during her sophomore year of high school. At this time, she learned that Penn’s financial-aid policy includes need-blind admissions and full-need packages. She then applied to Penn through QuestBridge.

Ulloa came to campus last week as part of the Scholars Preview program — the experience of which helped her finalize her choice of Penn for next year.

“I loved it because everyone was extremely talented and nobody was just average,” she said. “It made me feel part of the community and like I could do great things.”

Bev Taylor, founder of college consulting firm Ivy Coach, said special programs for first-generation students and other minority groups could be helpful in demonstrating a sense of community on campus.

It is important to make the “students feel like they owe the school something and that they’re hyped to go to that school when the school reaches out and lets them know they care,” she said.

She added that parents of first-generation students may often rely more heavily on metrics like U.S. News and World Report rankings to evaluate schools in the decision process, and that one-on-one outreach can help personalize the decision.

Ulloa, who submitted her Statement of Intent to Register to Penn a few days ago, said she is glad to be surrounded by people who will not ridicule her for wanting to learn.

“I want to tell other first-generation students to not give up,” she said. “It might seem intimidating [to go to college], but it’s totally possible.”


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