After the Affirmative Action Ban, Are First-Generation Students the Answer to College Diversity?

Affirmative action is over. But can enrolling first-generation students help preserve college diversity?
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  • The Supreme Court banned affirmative action in college admissions in June 2023.
  • In response, some colleges have increased efforts to recruit first-generation students.
  • First-generation students have more diverse backgrounds but face unique challenges.

The Supreme Court upended college admissions in June 2023 when it banned affirmative action. For over half a century, many colleges — particularly highly selective schools — relied on affirmative action to increase the diversity of their student bodies.

As countless studies have shown, access to higher education benefits historically marginalized students. Campus diversity also benefits students of all races and backgrounds.

But how can colleges continue to promote diversity after the affirmative action ban? One solution could be investing more in first-generation college students. Although the definition of "first generation" varies, it generally refers to students whose parents or guardians either did not attend college or do not hold a bachelor's degree. First-generation students tend to have more diverse backgrounds than their peers whose families have a history of attending college.

However, first-generation students face unique barriers when it comes to higher education. While first-gen students comprise a growing percentage of undergrads, colleges must invest in programs that support first-gen learners and build partnerships to improve their enrollment, retention, and graduation rates.

Understanding Affirmative Action Bans and Their Impact

Colleges implemented affirmative action in the 1960s to increase access to higher education for historically marginalized groups. Since then, legal challenges have limited affirmative action in college admissions. In June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions policies violate the Constitution.

How will the ban on affirmative action affect diversity and representation on campus? Several states banned affirmative action at public institutions in the 1990s and 2000s. In those states, minority enrollment dropped when schools stopped considering race. Something similar could happen across the nation in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision.

Access to higher education boosts social mobility, and inclusive policies that promote diversity improve learning outcomes. Additionally, diversity benefits all college students. For example, students who belong to diverse student bodies are exposed to a broader spectrum of perspectives and beliefs, which can boost their personal growth and ability to collaborate effectively.

As colleges look for alternative strategies to maintain diversity in the face of the affirmative action ban, many are turning to the recruitment of first-generation students.

Examining the First-Generation Student Experience

First-generation college students are often recognized as students who do not have a family member with a bachelor's degree. Because their families have little or no college experience, many first-gen students face unique challenges. For example, their parents or guardians may not be able to offer as much guidance on the application process or how to apply for financial aid.

Nonetheless, first-generation students make up a growing percentage of all undergrads. In 2011, 18% of undergrads identified as first-gen students, according to NCES data. In 2016, that number grew to 37%.

With the end of affirmative action in college admissions, can first-generation students help promote campus diversity? Supporting first-gen students works to break cycles of intergenerational inequality. First-gen students also bring a variety of perspectives and experiences to college.

The Potential of First-Generation Students in Promoting Diversity

Compared to their peers, first-generation students are a more diverse group. For example, 50% of Black college students are first-generation students. In comparison, 30% of white college students identify as first generation. These first-generation students bring unique perspectives that enhance the educational experience for all students.

Encouraging colleges to recruit and support first-generation students can improve campus diversity. And many colleges are taking steps to enroll first-generation students. At Wake Forest University, for example, first-generation students qualify for targeted scholarships, counseling, and academic support. The university is also implementing an early action program for first-generation students in the fall of 2023.

Addressing Barriers and Supporting First-Generation Students

First-generation students face unique barriers. For example, they graduate at lower rates than their peers. At highly selective schools, first-gen students report a 76.4% graduation rate (compared to 86.4% of non-first-gen students). And at open-admission schools, this discrepancy is even greater — just 21.0% of first-gen students at these schools graduate (compared to 44.1% of non-first-gen students).

So how can colleges improve the graduation rates for first-generation students? The solution requires comprehensive programs that offer academic, financial, and social support. But even when these services are available, many first-generation students may not realize they qualify, so colleges must also implement effective outreach strategies.

Collaboration and Partnerships for Sustainable Change

Supporting first-generation students goes beyond on-campus efforts. Educational institutions should also collaborate actively with community organizers and policymakers.

Colleges can foster partnerships with local high schools, for example, to provide mentorship during the application process. Financial aid counseling through community organizations can help potential students identify resources. Partnerships can also offer networking opportunities.

Currently, first-gen students are more likely to enroll in less-selective colleges. At open-admission schools, two in three students are first-generation learners. The numbers flip at very selective schools, where fewer than one in three students are first gen.

Guidance from school counselors, admissions advisors, and other trusted adults can help first-gen students navigate the admissions and financial aid processes at these more selective schools, which often offer more need-based aid.

Collective action can promote sustainable change for these first-generation students and the student bodies they join.

Ensuring Equal Access

College diversity is an important goal. And equal access to higher education improves the social mobility of first-generation students. By recruiting and supporting first-gen students, colleges can promote diversity on campus.

Today, the colleges most affected by the ban on affirmative action enroll the lowest numbers of first-gen students. Highly selective institutions have statistically much lower numbers of first-generation and low-income students, Zaneta Rago-Craft, director of Monmouth University's Intercultural Center, told Inside Higher Ed.

By investing in first-gen students, these institutions can accomplish one of the primary goals of affirmative action — increasing access to higher education— while also benefiting their entire student bodies.