The struggles of a first generation college student
Join me on a small aside — I promise it relates. An organization called the College Board is responsible for creating the Scholastic Reasoning Test (SAT). This exam is one of two major college entrance tests (the other is the ACT). Score high enough on the SAT, and you could attend almost any university. Likewise, entrance scores can often influence the level of aid given to entering freshmen students.
One variable can influence your SAT score, admission chances, aid opportunities, and much more; it’s called, first generation status. These college students are the first person in direct, immediate family to pursue a secondary education. Essentially, parents of first generation college students must not have attended college themselves. Born and raised in a family without ties to college can directly affect your success in higher levels of academia.
In nearly every category, with decades of data, they’ve found clear differences between first generation and non-first generation college students. College Board researchers have found that first generation college student are less likely to take preparatory courses for the standardized exam, take fewer advanced placement courses (AP) prior to college, and are less likely to take accelerated math courses. These are just a few of the hurdles for these disadvantaged students.
Family role models for academic success can be scarce. Study habits may not have been learned. Monetary support may be nonexistent. First generation students may struggle to connect with peers on campus. All of these factors raise the risk for dissatisfaction in school, higher dropout rates, and mental health concerns. Frankly, it pays to have family ties to education.
Similar status as a first generation saver
Maybe you’re wondering, “What does all this college student talk have to do with personal finance and money, Sam?”
I’m glad you asked.
Similar to college, first generation savers face serious tests — analogous problems exist. Lessons are passed down from generation to generation. Inheritances can be shared and kept within families. Strong principles and techniques for smartly minimizing individual tax responsibilities are taught. (Heck, how do you think Romney only paid about 14.1%?). First generation savers frequently have friends in comparable financial predicaments.
Starting, customizing, and following a monthly budget are learned. It helps if your parents teach you. Additionally, when you can see how they save and manage their money in action, a good cycle can be learned. The first generation saver doesn’t have the opportunity to learn from parents. As the first savers in a family, they’re bucking a pattern of money mismanagement — the waters can be murky, challenging, and lonely.
Is willpower the key ingredient to saving?
Personal finance gurus stress individual power, will, and grit. They propagate unscientific expertise that suggests they have the tools to balance your budget, reduce debt, create emergency funds, and retire with a sizable nest egg. For the most part, their help and advice can really help. Unfortunately, their one-size-fits-all advice isn’t often tailored for first generation savers.
Willpower-based economic education is far too common. It’s the ill-conceived bumper sticker of American personal finance policy: one must have the will and energy to save — that’s all it takes. Otherwise, you’re a lazy failure because you cannot commit to these steps.
I’m afraid that does an injustice to more multicultural groups who don’t necessarily have the same role models and social support for financial success. Frankly, most personal finance advice is distilled and created for a certain population; one that has the means to believe in free will and individual power.
We need more diversity among financial gurus — socioeconomic statuses, races, genders, persons with disabilities, and more. Voices need to come to the table and share their individual experiences. While some advice and feedback may not fit, there’s hope in knowing that more people are out there sharing openly and acknowledging the team effort that’s necessary to come back from tens of thousands in debt.