First-gen, low-income: The difference a college degree makes for a mom (and her daughter)

With college tuition rising and the cost of government loans potentially doubling, a blizzard of stats, figures and debate about the  value of a college degree can make it easy to lose sight of the real differences college completion can make in the lives of low-income students.

Not for me.

Heading for campus as a first-generation student – and a young, single mom

My daughter was two years old when I left for college. She’s now almost 16. Thanks to the opportunities my own education provided me, the last ten years of her life have been incredibly different from my own childhood.

Growing up in rural eastern Oregon, I only knew one person besides my teachers who had gone to college. I vividly remember the day I left for Oregon State University. I loaded my daughter and all of my belongings into my car to travel across the state. I said goodbye to my little brothers and my parents. Watching my mom cry broke my heart. I knew she was incredibly worried. I was the oldest out of my siblings, and my family didn’t know what to expect.

As I began my journey, I was oblivious to the fact that less than 20 percent of students like me (low-income and first-generation) completed college. Even dimmer was the fact that only two percent of young moms complete a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 30.

Staying the course : A supportive environment, child care and help from friends

Like many first-generation students, my experience once I was on campus was tough. I often felt as if I didn’t belong, or wasn’t smart enough, or would be pulled back home to deal with family issues. These struggles were compounded by the struggle to balance student and parenting responsibilities. My daughter spent most days in child care while I went to school and worked, and when I came home, I spent a lot of time studying. Sometimes I felt incredibly guilty for not spending more time with her. I often wondered if I was doing the right thing.

But the school I attended had invested in many resources to support first-generation students. They had no fewer than four cultural centers that helped me stay connected to my culture and community. They had a recruitment and retention office. I was able to surround myself with a great support system that helped me and my daughter make it. My daughter joined me at organization meetings, volunteer meetings and study sessions, and my friends would often watch her while I took exams.

The day I graduated, I knew I had done something big. But I didn’t know the reality of how it would change my life, my daughter’s life, and even my siblings’ lives. Walking across that stage with my daughter and other family members in the audience, what I didn’t know was that I had increased my odds of upward economic mobility. I didn’t know that I was now three times more likely to rise from the bottom quintile of the income ladder to the top. And I didn’t know that my daughter’s odds of going to and completing college had now quadrupled.

A dramatically different trajectory: Not “if,” but “when”

My daughter’s childhood has been so different from mine. I had to wait for an emergency to see the doctor. I had to wait until the pain was unbearable to see the dentist. I watched my both parents come home physically exhausted after long hours at the food processing plants where they worked. But the biggest change I see is around the simple expectation of going to college. I grew up with a big “If”: “If I go to college, then…”

That’s not true for my daughter or my two  younger brothers. They all grew up saying, “when I go to college.” That doesn’t guarantee their success, not by a long shot, but it makes a difference. And not just for them.

What kind of difference does being a second generation student make, and for how many people? According to one 2010 story in USA Today, “Roughly 30% of entering freshmen in the USA are first-generation college students, and 24% — 4.5 million — are both first-gens and low income. Nationally, 89% of low-income first-gens leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income, second-generation students.”

I’m glad that, at 16, I didn’t know the odds against me. I’m even more glad to be in a position to shift the stats, not just for my daughter, but for other first-generation, low-income students who, like me, will open up new, as yet unimagined doorways for themselves, their families and their communities for generations to come.

Ninfa Murillo is part of the Dell Scholars Program team. Her focus is development and implementation of services to provide Dell Scholars with the guidance and support they need to successfully complete their college degrees.