The Immense Struggles of First-Generation Latino College Students

Photo Courtesy of Daily Bruin

Edward Colmenares


Imagine being tasked with setting the precedent of success for your entire family at 17 years old. No matter the personal cost, it is now your responsibility to lift your family out of poverty. This is the crucial promise many first-generation Latine college students make when they head off to higher education. Once they reach college, however, these students only uncover a disheartening reality. They were set up to fail from the start.

Stricken with discouragement when comparing childhoods with their wealthier peers, these first-generation Latine students recognize that university was not intended for them. Since the inception of higher education institutions, and up until a couple of generations ago, there was no reasonable path for these students to even attend university, and the few lucky enough to enroll could only do so under the demeaning conditions of systematic racism.

From K-12, Latine students are at a disadvantage. Born to immigrant, working-class parents, Latine children begin their educational journey with a lack of socioeconomic privileges that their peers have become accustomed to by pre-school. Often, neither parent in the household speaks English fluently enough to teach their child(ren) the language. Spanish is all these kids know, as they suddenly enter an environment where they will be excluded because of the simple fact that they speak a different language that isn’t English. Thus, a striking 82 percent of all students K-12 situated in California English language learning programs are Latine. 

Any English learned at school then becomes a tool for the parents and family as these students commonly become a resource for translating, whether spoken in a movie or present in billing letters. It is important to note that a large portion of Latine parents did not make it past high school due to a lack of educational resources in their home country, so it is particularly difficult for them to learn English upon reaching the U.S.

Many Latine children are familiar with poverty. Representing 17 percent of the American workforce, Latine families are actively working to improve the lives of their children but can commonly only do so through exhausting manual labor. In agricultural, construction, or housekeeping occupations, the Latine population composes over half or close to half of the labor force. However, the unreliability and unlivable wages of these jobs severely limits the financial capacities of these working families.

As a result, Latine children in California K-12 schools account for 71 percent of all economically disadvantaged students and 73 percent of all homeless students. Considering that these same Latine children make up over one-half of all California students, it is an unfortunate reality that poverty strikes these children at disproportionately high rates.

When looking at Latine high school seniors graduating and potentially enrolling in the University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) system, only 44 percent would even be eligible to apply. In order to qualify for either of these public institutions, a series of A-G courses must first be completed in high school, but the low-income school districts where these students are from are not sufficiently informing or preparing them for the admission requirements of higher education. 

Getting into a four-year university is simply not a possibility for a majority of first-generation Latine. Out of 1,391,503 Latine undergraduates in California, 72 percent enroll in community colleges optimistically planning to transfer after two years. However, after six years, only about a third of these students actually end up enrolling in four-year colleges or universities while the rest drop out or postpone their education indefinitely. 

The good news is that Latine students who are lucky enough to attend a major California four-year institution do tend to be first-generation. In both the UC and CSU system three out of four Latino students are the first in their family to reach higher education, which is over double that of other races. This luck has a limit though, as these students will face certain struggles the rest of the student body does not.

First and foremost comes the stress of paying for higher education, and Latine communities are granted less state and federal financial aid when compared to other races. Furthermore, expected contributions from parents and family members are significantly lower. On average, families of Latine students are expected to pay $5,911, compared to $13,319 for white families.

To make up for a lack of family funds, a majority of Latine students find employment to cover tuition and the cost of living. At the expense of academic performance and social participation, about 32 percent of all employed Latine students are working full-time with the rest being employed part-time. It is discouraging that so many of these Latine students must work long hours while trying to maintain a reasonable commitment to school, and this stress contributes to higher dropout rates.

Each year, the amount of Latine students entering higher education rises, so it’s not all bad news. However, proportional to the number of other races, Latine are at a severe disadvantage on all academic grounds, especially those who desire to be the first in their families to attend college. Without proper accommodations and consideration, beginning from grade school, Latine students will commonly find themselves unable to reach any adequate mantle of success for their families and will continue in poverty.