First-Generation Students Want First-Rate Educations

Students want to go to college. They want to succeed in school. And they want to take the rigorous classes that make postsecondary success possible.

These aspirations are nearly universal, including students from families that have not enjoyed the privileges of higher education. According to a new study from ACT and the Council for Opportunity in Education, 94 percent of "first-generation" students aspire to earn postsecondary degrees, with two-thirds completing the ACT's recommended core curriculum.

This is as it should be. Social mobility is at the core of the American dream, where by dint of effort all people have the chance to craft a life for themselves and make a living for their families.

Unfortunately our report, titled The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013: First-Generation Students, also found that 52 percent of first-generation ACT-tested students did not meet any of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in English, Math, Reading or Science.

Missing those benchmark scores meant these first-generation students also likely lacked the academic background to succeed in certain key college courses without remediation. By way of comparison, only 31 percent of all ACT-tested students tested missed all four benchmarks.

On the other end of the scale, only 9 percent of first-generation students met all four ACT benchmarks, compared to 26 percent of all ACT-tested students.

The numbers for the first-generation students are particularly telling to me. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. As a first-generation student, I know how important postsecondary education was in shaping my life, and appreciate the difference it could make to millions of others.

Fortunately, there are signs of change. The just-released results from the National Assessment of Education Progress show that fourth grade and eighth grade math scores are rising, slowly but in a statistically significant manner. NAEP reading scores in those grades are also at their highest levels ever.

Still, most students in both grades scored below the proficient level in both math and reading, and that's just not good enough. We need our youngest students to be proficient, demonstrating "solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter." Achieving "advanced" status, as 4 to 9 percent of NAEP-tested students did, depending on the grade and subject, would be even better.

ACT is best known for the ACT college readiness assessment, but college and career readiness begins sooner than high school. This spring we will introduce ACT Aspire, a program that will start with third graders and continue working with them through their early high school years so that by the time they're ready for college and career, they really are ready for success.

Students not only WANT to succeed. America NEEDS them to succeed. That's particularly true for first-generation students who, to this point in history, have been left on the outside looking in.

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Jon Whitmore is CEO of ACT, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is "Helping people achieve education and workplace success."