College Matters: Supporting Low-Income and First-Generation Students


FOR MORE THAN FIFTEEN YEARS, WKCD listened and talked with students nationwide about their learning, their schools, their hopes and dreams. Going to college was a big part of these conversations. What does it take to get to college, especially if you are the first in your family to go? Where does the motivation come from? What stands in the way? What supports do students need, and where can they—do they—turn for help? How well do they feel their schools are preparing them for college?

We started our “college matters” initiative, in collaboration with Lumina Foundation for Education, with first-generation students in mind. It soon grew to encompass low-income youth in general. For two years we gathered stories and advice from a diverse group of first-generation college students, from two-year colleges to elite four-year colleges and universities. From these interviews, we produced a rich set of resources for first-generation and low-income students on how to make it to college and succeed once there. All of these resources are student-to-student: "near peers" advising those following in their footsteps. They are aimed at the adults who support students on the path to college as much as the students themselves.

Here we offer a directory of all of the websites, books, multimedia, downloads, feature stories and special research projects we developed.



Our special website,, offers practical advice and lessons learned by high school seniors and college students who have made it to college. Some of these student “experts” are the first in their family to attend college. Others have college in their family background—but it’s still a stretch, filled with hopes and hurdles. In either case, they have lots to pass on about going to college. The site also includes videos WKCD has co-produced with students, grade-by-grade planning checklists, inspirational books and quotes, and links to resources that we have found to be standouts. There is also a special section for college advisors.


First in the Family: Advice About College from First-Generation Students—Vol. I: Your High School Years (Out of print)

 “If we can do it, so can you!” That’s the message sent to students in this advice book, written with college students who were the first in their families to go past high school. It’s tough to aim for college if other family members have not—so this book offers the kind of encouraging, practical guidance that an older sibling would give. Inspiring stories of the diverse student contributors—who end up at institutions from community colleges to elite universities—combine with warm and well-organized counsel and checklists. This first volume is geared towards students in grades 8 - 12.

NOTE: While we no longer have hard copies available, we have produced a free, updated e-book version that includes videos and multimedia linked to First in the Family—Your High School Years. To view the free e-book in any web browser, click here.

First in the Family: Advice About College from First-Generation Students—Vol. II: Your College Years (Bulk orders only)

In Vol. II of First in the Family, sixteen first-generation stu dents, in their last years of college, speak powerfully about the challenges facing those who arrive at college with only hope and courage as their legacy. They tell of the culture shock of arrival at college, then remind students what strengths have brought them this far. They give blunt counsel on keeping up with academics in the face of discouragement. They emphasize the know-how that passes down through generations of college-educated families: building relationships with professors, choosing courses that can open new doors, managing time.

NOTE: We are currently taking only bulk orders (minimum of 50 copies) for this title. but we have produced a free, updated e-book version that includes videos and multimedia linked to First in the Family—Your College Years. from our First in the Family campaign. For bulk orders, please contact bcervone@nextgenerationpress. To view the free e-book in any web browser, click here.


“How to Make It to College” (13 min.)
Six students who are the first in their family to go to college tell their stories. Meet Eric Polk, the first student in his Nashville, Tennessee high school to go to Wake Forest University . . . Gabe Carmona, whose mother and her 12 siblings grew up picking crops in Texas . . . and other inspiring young adults.

“Hear Us Out” (each video is approx 13 min.)
High school students in Seattle, WA and Hamilton County, TN share their experiences and advice in a series of student-led focus groups involving students in grades 9 – 12. They talk about what motivates them towards college, what weighs them down, and the supports they need. The seniors offer advice to freshmen about starting early on planning for college and staying on track. (There are two videos, one featuring Seattle students, the other students from Hamilton County, TN.)

“Who We Are” (3:30 min.)
Students who are the first in their family to attend college talk about the challenges they face—part of a national campaign to raise financial aid for lower income students.

"Immigrant Students' Quest for Higher Education " (12 min.)
Seniors at Bronx International High School, a public school for newcomers to the U.S., document the obstacles they face as immigrants with hopes of attending college.


“First-Generation Students Talk About What Gets Them Through College”
Six Audio-Slideshows for First-Year Students
In this collection of six short audio-slideshows, first-generation college students describe the challenges they confront—and the support they need to make it to the four-year college degree. Their recorded voices and photographs bring alive the research on the obstacles of money, family circumstances, and insufficient academic preparation—underlining how colleges can assist. Discussion questions, both for students and for college faculty and staff, encourage thoughtful reflection.


Advice about College from Low-Income and First-Generation Students
This 8-page booklet presents the voices and experiences of 5,000 high school students and hundreds of first and second-year college students, whose stories and insights about college WKCD has gathered over five years. It’s a condensed print version of our website, targeted at low-income and first-generation students in grades 8 – 12. We believe it should have a place in school guidance offices and afterschool and summer programs that want to support their youth’s college dreams.

College Matters: A Short Guide for Youth Advocates—What you can do to help youth put and keep college in their sights
In a recent survey of 5,000 high school students in Tennessee and Washington— conducted by WKCD with student researchers in both states—youth spoke passionately about the challenges they faced gathering the support they need for college. As these youth looked around for places where they could get help, they talked about youth-serving organizations in the community as a potential source for the support they cannot get at school or at home. In response, we’ve put together this 12-page guide, College Matters, for organizations that work directly with teenage youth afterschool or in the summer and want to help them put and keep college in sight.

Glossary of College Application Terms for Students
The college application process is filled with special terms, forms, deadlines, requirements, standardized tests, college “searches” and visits—and more. It is daunting, especially for students who are the first in their family to go to college. On these pages, we offer a list of terms and definitions students, parents, and community mentors will encounter along the way. We have grouped the terms, alphabetically, in these categories: (1) applying; (2) college entrance exams;(4) types of institutions; (3) college acceptance terms (4) some college lingo; (5) types of post-secondary degrees. We’ve created a separate section for the financial aid process

College Terms for Parents
If the college application process is daunting for students, it can be even more daunting for parents, especially if they have no college experience themselves. This handout covers important terms in the following areas: (1) Types of Post-Secondary Institutions; (2) High School Courses and Grades for College; (3) Admission Tests; (4) College Application Vocabulary; (5) The “College Search”; (6) College Cost Vocabulary; (7) Paying for College (Financial Aid); (8) Some Campus Vocabulary; and (9) Types of Post-Secondary Degrees.

Stoking Students’ College Motivation: Inspiring Quotes and Books

Planning Checklists

Grade 9 Checklist.pdf

Grade 10 Checklist.pdf

Grade 11 Checklist.pdf

Grade 12 Checklist.pdf


“Hear Us Out: Students Talk About Going to College”
In 2010, WKCD, in conjunction with two local education funds, trai
ned and supported 24 youth researchers in nine high schools in two cities (Chattanooga and Seattle) to survey their peers about the help they were—or were not—getting on the path to college. Close to 5,000 students completed the student researchers’ survey and another 225 participated in focus groups and interviews. The students also surveyed counselors at their schools. The results were stunning. In addition to the reports that summarize the data student researchers collected and the focus group and interview comments, the project also produced two videos of students in both cities talking about their college paths.


Across Summer's Shaky Bridge to College Help from Other Students
The summer between high school and college poses ongoing challenges for first-generation students. Determined to counteract the well-documented "summer melt," the Young Women's Leadership Network in NYC created the Bridge to Summer program, making "college coaches," themselves first-generation college students, available to graduating high school seniors who needed attention and guidance transitioning to college.

College Struggles: You're On Your Own, Kid
Otis Hampton was accepted at all six colleges he applied to in NYC. He chose Medgar Evers, gathered the financial aid he needed, began with high hopes....and failed. Refusing to let his dream of becoming a professional writer die, he started again at another NYC community college which gave students like Otis the chance to start fresh. In this first-person account, Otis tells his story about learning the hard way how to make a success of yourself in college. In a humorous video, he also offers tips for other struggling students.

College Bound: Class of 2011
The melody wafting from the windows of Providence’s Round Top Church was clear and strong: “You’re college bound, you’re college bound! Tell the world that you’re college bound.” Inside, 67 high school seniors, cheered on by families and friends, crossed the stage. Nearly all low-income and minority, every one of them was headed to college, with financial aid well in hand. Coached, prodded, and loved by the nonprofit College Visions, they had defied the odds.

A ‘Dream Project’ Draws High Schoolers into College Success
More than 75 eleventh graders fill the library at Seattle’s Ingraham High School, defying its rule of quiet with animated conversations. They huddle in small groups, led by undergraduates from the nearby University of Washington (“U-Dub’’), who are here on their weekly visit to help Ingraham students prepare for college. The undergrads sport t-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Dream Team.” They are part of the “Dream Project,” an extraordinary credit-bearing course at UW.

“Submit Application!”: Youth Coach Their Peers Past the College-Access Potholes 
On this bitter late-December day, students are streaming into the “Student Success Center” at Bushwick Campus High School in Brooklyn. At every computer station along its walls, two or three students gather, eyes fixed on the screen as one of them punches information into the online Common Application for four-year college admissions. It’s not the winter break that these students are counting down to: College application deadlines are coming up on them fast—and they need help. Helping them are classmates who have been trained as college advisors.

Clearing the Hidden Hurdle: Filling Out the “FAFSA" 
Just a week before the Super Bowl, 100 high school students pack two rooms at the Community College of Rhode Island. On this last Sunday in January, as they huddle around computer monitors, they hope to score their own touchdown: paying for college. They have come here to navigate one of the most complicated maneuvers on the path to college: filling out the “Free Application for Student Financial Aid,” otherwise known as FASFA.

Upward Bound Students Aim for College 
Early on Saturday mornings, while their friends are sleeping in after a long week of school, a crowd of teenagers converges on a building in Columbia College’s downtown Chicago campus. They come from all over the city, waking up extra early to catch the bus or train and arrive on time, pens, pencils and notebooks in tow. They are participants in Columbia College’s Upward Bound program, and they’re ready to hit the books.

Shout Outs



have a story for wkcd?

Want to bring public attention
to your work? WKCD invites
submissions from youth and
educators worldwide.

Write to us


“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator