The Problem We Aim to Solve

First-generation college-bound students live—and learn—within a broken system that prevents them from reaching their full potential. Structural racism, intergenerational poverty, and other injustices create significant personal and institutional barriers to success for entire communities. 

This results in disparities that follow young people throughout their educational experiences: overall, White students are five times as likely than their Black and Latinx peers to graduate from college (64% vs. 11% and 14%). Estimated bachelor’s degree attainment rates are five times higher for those in the highest income quartile than for the lowest income quartile (58% vs. 11%), according to the Pell Institute.

This chart shows proficiency levels of Student U students on North Carolina End-Of-Grade and North Carolina End-Of-Course exams compared to various segments of the Durham Public School population for the 2017–2018 school year. The data demonstrates the systemic challenges at the heart of why Student U exists and how much more work is required to create a system in which all students can succeed.

First-generation college students (FGCS) face other related obstacles as they move through high school and college:

High School Graduation and College Readiness:

Within the American public education system, schools in wealthier areas have more resources than schools in less-affluent areas; therefore, students in less-affluent areas usually attend schools that are not proficient in core academics or college preparation. This results in lower SAT/ACT test scores and GPAs, which are consistent predictors of college enrollment and persistence.

  • Students of color are less likely to be recommended by counselors and teachers for honors-level classes, which keeps them on a lower track and can hinder their eligibility for acceptance into competitive universities.
  • Because American schools operate primarily in English, families who do not speak English as their first language often have difficulty advocating for their students at school. They are rarely able to speak directly with teachers; even if a translator is available, their needs are often not communicated effectively.

College Enrollment, Persistence and Graduation:

Because of institutional racism, White families have had more access to intergenerational passing of wealth than Black and Latinx families, particularly in terms of home and land ownership. This creates a significant gap in liquid assets and income to help offset the cost of college expenses for children. 

  • Low-income students often have more financial responsibilities inside of their families than high-income students, alongside fewer financial "recovery" resources if a problem arises.
  • There are major cultural nuances in the college landscape that students must master to be successful.  First-generation students often navigate these nuances alone, while other students can draw on the experiences of their parents or guardians. 

Personal Well-being:

As a result of structural racism and intergenerational poverty, students of color and low-income students have higher levels of toxic stress and trauma than their White and affluent peers.

  • Toxic stress and trauma are often misdiagnosed; students who experience them are likely over-policed in classrooms. Behavioral disturbances are managed punitively, rather than restoratively. This leads to an overuse of suspensions, which causes grades and performance to suffer. As a result of these factors, students often develop complex relationships with their schools. 
  • Students who have experienced toxic stress often lack access to quality healthcare; this leads to decreased health and well-being, greater out-of-school time, and a limited ability to focus in school. 

These problems are both widespread and cyclical. A student’s level of educational attainment correlates with their income potential, and the racial disparities in educational achievement contribute to our country’s growing wealth gap between White people and people of color ( Even after first-generation, low-income students of color graduate from college, they receive an average starting salary 12% below that of their peers—a wage gap that persists long after graduation and perpetuates patterns of wealth inequality (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2017). 

Because they shape the lives of marginalized communities over many generations, systemic racism and intergenerational poverty are forces that not only negatively influence student outcomes, but also compromise the prosperity and security of the entire family unit. In order to break the cycle of poverty and help shape a new future for our city, Student U supports Durham’s first-generation students through middle school, high school, college, and beyond.  

The Cyclical Problem Nationally

The Cyclical Problem

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College Grads

“We are destined to change the world. We, the Student U students, are becoming teachers, leaders, community activists, organizers, and most importantly, world-changers. We have so many fearless dreams that one day will impact society. Maybe in this community we have the doctor who finds a cure for cancer or perhaps the lawyer with the reputation of clearing the streets of all crime. Or maybe we have the next man or woman to invent the next big ‘must have’ in technology. And who knows, in this community we might have the next leader of our country. No matter what it is that we become, we are certain that each and every one of our names will be heard of in the future.”

– The Student U College Graduating Class of 2018