‘First Generation’ Documentary Raises the Question: Is Higher Education Only for the Wealthy?


As a former admissions officer at Columbia University, I used to spend the fall traveling to high schools and college fairs spreading the gospel of our world-class education from which I had also benefited.

Although the majority of my visits were to elite private schools or well-funded suburban public schools that sent scores of applications to the university every year, I made it a point whenever I could to schedule sessions at urban or rural public schools. My hope was to find promising students that might otherwise be overlooked by our traditional recruiting efforts. 

While most of the low-income students I met had close to a perfect academic record, later in the year when their applications arrived on my desk, they looked very different from their wealthier peers. They had lower test scores, fewer if any AP courses, and unpolished essays that made it difficult to justify a coveted spot at our institution. From what the statistics implied, this was not an uncommon scenario. In the United States, less than 10 percent of college students come from the lowest income quartile, and at the 146 most selective schools that number drops to under 3 percent. 

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Growing up as a low-income student myself, I knew there was so much more to these students than what their applications revealed.

Growing up as a low-income student myself, I knew there was so much more to these students than what their applications revealed. So in 2007, without any financial or studio support, my husband Adam and I set out to uncover the stories behind the statistics. On a shoestring budget, and armed only with a camera and microphone, we started documenting the lives of four high-achieving high school juniors from low-income communities across California.

We wanted to explore the issues students face while striving to be the first in their families to go to college and better understand how and why higher education in the U.S. seemed primarily reserved for the wealthy.

Over the course of three years, we witnessed the heartbreaking struggles of these students and the roadblocks that stood in their way as they attempted to reach their goals of a college education. We learned that the educational chasm between the classes is not because wealthier students are smarter or more driven than their low-income peers, but because high-income students have better access to information and more support from their families, schools, and communities.

We also interviewed educational experts about the social and economic ramifications for the U.S. if we continue on this trend of failing to graduate more low-income students from college. The result is that our nation is on track to be short millions of college degrees, resulting in billions of dollars in loss to our economy. 

Four years after we began working on the film, which is narrated by Blair Underwood, First Generation premiered at 2011’s The Heartland Film Festival and since then has screened over 100 times for festivals, universities, high schools, and nonprofits. Along the way we've won some awards, been written up in numerous publications, including The New York Times, and last spring had the opportunity to screen the film for members of the White House, Congress, and Department of Education. But the best screenings, for us have been the ones where we’ve had the chance to share the film at high schools that serve predominantly low-income populations and afterwards hear students say things like:

“Seeing this film has changed my life.”

“I had no idea there were other students like me.”

“I’m inspired to pursue my dream of going to college.”

We know our film has a powerful message, but that it will only effect change if it gets to its intended audience. Our ultimate goal is to screen First Generation for the underserved and traditionally disadvantaged students and families and schools who need to see it most. 

To that end, we've decided to launch a grassroots funding campaign via Kickstarter. Our goal is to raise $50,000 to bring the film to 50 states throughout the 2012-2013 school year and seek to strategically impact 100+ low-income communities and schools. We will be hosting Q&A panels, student workshops, and town hall discussions all focused on starting a dialogue about what we as individuals (and as a nation) need to do to raise the college graduation rate for first generation and low-income students. Check out the campaign page to learn more.

We want to help increase the number of low-income college graduates in our nation, to inspire students to pursue their educational goals, and debunk the myth that college is unaffordable. But we know we can’t do this on our own, so we’re asking everyone to help make this possible, but especially those who understand the value of a college education and the impact it can have in changing the trajectory of a student’s life.

Join us.  Inspire students. Change the future of education.

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First Generation has a goal is to reach all 50 states by the end of the school year, targeting low-income communities that usually don’t have the means to host a screening. To reach this goal we have started a grassroots funding campaign on kickstarter.com. Any support through donations or sharing the link on social media sites, would be greatly appreciated. Learn more about the film and watch the trailer at www.firstgenerationfilm.com.

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Jaye Fenderson, along with her husband Adam, is the director/producer of the feature-length documentary First Generation, which follows the story of four low-income high school students striving to be first in their families to go to college. A former senior admissions officer at Columbia University, Jaye is the author of Seventeen's Guide To Getting Into College and the co-creator and producer of The Scholar (ABC), an unscripted television drama that gave 10 high school seniors the chance to compete for a full ride college scholarship.