OPINION: Bridge to acceptance: Creating a program to support first-gen, low-income students

The message, “DoS only listens 2 them,” was spraypainted on Walker Wall. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Hold on to your open minds and keep all prejudices outside of the vehicle at all times — we are entering an era of unprecedented diversity in higher education.

Elite private colleges and universities around the United States are admitting more underrepresented minorities, women and first-generation, low-income (FLI) students than ever before.

Pomona College has admitted a greater proportion of first-generation students in the last two years, from 16.8 percent in 2020 to 19.2 percent in 2022. However, despite the growing visibility of FLI students on college campuses, the institutional resources provided don’t always reflect the needs of this changing demographic.

An increasingly common solution that does reflect these needs is the creation of a summer bridge program for incoming FLI students, something that Pomona has lacked even in the face of peer institutions jockeying for high-achieving FLI students.

According to a New York Times estimate, only 21.8 percent of Pomona’s student body comes from the bottom 60 percent of incomes, while 67 percent come from the top 20 percent.

These statistics confirm that Pomona is still a rich and elite institution, so lower-income and middle-income students are outnumbered by wealthier peers.

Despite the benefits they provide students, college administrations often question the need for summer bridge programs. The answer? First-generation and/or low-income students start their college experiences at a disadvantage in terms of resources, so bringing equity to that disparity should be a priority.

As The Washington Post has documented, even at institutions that claim to have a no-loan policy or claim to meet 100 percent of student need, students still have financial obligations such as student contributions, health insurance costs, personal and book expenses, support from family members and many other costs that aren’t covered by the school. Student need is determined by the FAFSA, and may not accurately reflect what students will be able to contribute toward tuition and costs.

Additionally, these colleges often overlook the academic differences of students coming from high schools that are under-resourced. They don’t address the need to play catch-up while also balancing the additional financial burdens and time constraints that come with being in school.

The Pell Institute has noted that the combination of these stresses has led to lower retention rates and graduation rates for FLI students, with the lowest quartile of incomes being particularly susceptible.

Summer bridge programs and their continuing support for FLI students throughout their four years are seen as exceptional tools to promote student success across a range of metrics. Increased retention rates, higher GPAs, more time spent in co-curricular activities and leadership roles and more meaningful staff and faculty connections have all been reported by many other private, elite institutions.

Some of these programs include Stanford University’s Leland Scholars Program, Princeton University’s Freshman Scholars Initiative and Washington University in St. Louis’s Summer Start Program. Perhaps most notable is Tufts University’s Bridge to Liberal Arts Success program, which has a 100 percent retention rate, graduating three cohorts as of this past May.

And college success extends beyond the classroom.

Both Brandi Pretlow of the Leland Scholars Program and Michael Fitzpatrick of Yale’s Freshman Scholars bridge program, told me via email that they have recorded increases in student participation in co-curricular activities and leadership roles after participating in their bridge programs.

By increasing FLI student involvement beyond the classroom walls, we solidify the institutional belief that learning occurs everywhere, from the residence halls to the tree-lined sidewalks of Claremont.

However, if we don’t make sure that a program like this is accessible to FLI students, then it will be ineffective. That means that we must make it like the others — free. For both Tufts and Princeton, alumni donations cover almost all of the program expenses.

If Pomona explained the benefits of a summer bridge program to alumni, the school could easily gather enough resources to fund such a program.

If colleges like Pomona are serious about diversity and inclusion, as well as ensuring that all students thrive, they need to do more than just admit FLI students; they must provide effective support to help them succeed.

The groundwork and the trailblazing has already been done. Now it is Pomona’s turn to build a bridge.

Daniel Garcia PO ’21 is the chair of the Pomona FLI Scholars Community Building Committee. A road trip connoisseur, he has also driven 40,000 miles in the last year and a half.

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