WASHINGTON – Every day of Dontay Gray’s senior year began at 5 a.m. The early start gave him enough time to catch the two buses and two trains to David Starr Jordan High School in Long Beach, California.
Although his family had moved a 90-minute commute away, Gray had his reasons for finishing high school at Jordan. He wanted to make a name for himself on the nationally-ranked football team, in hopes of earning a scholarship and becoming the first person in his family to attend college. If the sports angle didn’t work, he had been doing well academically, slowly raising a 2.8 GPA with a semester full of As and Bs. Plus, it was the first school he had attended since serving his sentence for gun possession in tenth grade.
“I started my road to college my 11th grade year. It’s never too late,” says Gray, now a senior at California State University, Sacramento. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, where your family is from, or what you’ve been through. College is for everybody.”
Gray is one of four students profiled in a new documentary titled, First Generation. The film seeks to shed light on the college access gap, which is often widest for those who are first in their families to pursue higher education.
According to the National College Access Network, full college access is achieved when every student receives sufficient academic preparation and personal support, to begin, and successfully complete post-secondary education. NCAN reports that only8.3 percent of low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 (compared to 73 percent of students from high-income families).
“Both my parents went to college and both their parents went to college. My parents hired a private counselor for me because they knew my public school wasn’t helping me,” says the film’s co-director, Adam Fenderson. The genesis of the film came through his wife and co-director Jaye, who was a low-income student at Columbia University, and later became an admissions officer for the school. According to Jaye, the handful of applications from low-income students simply couldn’t compete with the gilded submissions from more well-off students.
Adam explains, “I had a lot of support and it was something I took for granted as a kid. For people [like me], it’s hard to teach them that that’s not necessarily normal, and that’s not necessarily what others are dealing with.”
One of the film’s goals is to show how complex the college access problem can be; a range of factors contributes to the disparity. NCAN cites rising tuition costs; the confusing, unstandardized admissions process; application fees; lack of academic and emotional support; and, a 471-to-1 average ratio of students to guidance counselors.
On top of this, would-be first generation students may never even consider college as a viable option.
“For [first-generation students] college is a foreign thing. Nobody in your immediate family knows about it, most of them didn’t finish high school,” says Gray, adding that he had thought the only people who could go to college were wealthy, or had exceptional grades.
After being released from juvenile hall, he was connected with a mentor who was the first to suggest college as an option for him. “Your family doesn’t know, so they can’t tell you. So they don’t talk about it, so you never bring it up. And in not talking about it, you start to figure it’s OK not to go to college. Nobody else went, and they seem fine. The less you talk about it, the less you plan to go.”
Although most of the parents in the film were excited about the prospect of their child going to college, unmistakable worry lurked below their smiles. During the film, one mother (who did not complete high school), burst into tears while setting up the Christmas tree, torn between having to say goodbye, and the prospect of not being able to afford the opportunity.
Another mother (and widow) quietly asked her slightly more-knowledgeable son whether she would need to pay for all four years at once. Gray’s mom, who had beaten a drug addiction but was unemployed during applications season, simply quipped, “We’ll figure it out.”
Most first-generation students are part of low-income or middle-class homes that cannot afford any college costs out-of-pocket.
“[The cost] was one of the biggest problems I had on my mind. I was broke. My family couldn’t pay a dime, and that’s when they told me about the FAFSA,” Gray says. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid lays out a family’s income information (as reported to the Internal Revenue Service), and the government, schools, and organizations use it to gauge how much financial help will be given, based on need. “If I didn’t know about that, I wouldn’t have even applied for college. I wouldn’t want to put my mom through that, I’d rather go to work to help her out.”
This deal-breaking level of concern is not unfounded. College costs are rising across the country, particularly at public four-year institutions, which tend to attract low-income and first-generation students.
As a result, grants and scholarships (if a student is even aware of them) don’t cover as much, and families take on loans to supplement. The Center for American Progress reports that 81 percent of Black students who earned a bachelor’s in 2012 had student debt, with 27 percent of them responsible for repaying $30,500 or more.
The dark cloud of college cost begins to overshadow the other factors in choosing the right college. This overshadowing leads to “poor matching,” which occurs when students, especially first generation students, assume they won’t be able to attend their personal-first-choice school (or even upper-tier schools they hadn’t considered) because of finances and/or grades. So they set their sights lower.
All four students in the documentary fell prey to this in some way. Gray, for example, originally wanted to attend Clark Atlanta University, but was discouraged by the application question that inquired about his criminal record.
“Students who end up over-qualified for their college get less rigorous training than they might during their time in college,” states a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Michigan. “This may lead to lower earnings once they enter the market, and is an inefficient use of educational resources, since some of our most able students are not being pushed to expand their knowledge and skills.”
With demand for skilled workers on the rise and the United States plummeting in international education and economic rankings, the underdevelopment of these talented students may stunt national growth.
Adam and Jaye have partnered with Wells Fargo to take First Generation on the road as part of a “Go College!” Tour, screening the film for high school students and education advocates. Adam says, “For students in high school who feel like they can’t make it to college because of their circumstances…seeing the kids [in the film] make it in their own way gives them hope, a sense of power.”