The recent furor around college legacy admissions reminds us of just how far we need to go to close the opportunity gap for a group that’s been shortchanged for too long: first-generation college students. As the country becomes more diverse, the United States must meet the needs of first-generation college students to achieve representative diversity in leadership positions in every sector of the workforce. If we are ever to realize the full potential of our nation, we must finally make good on the promise of equal opportunity as a human right.
A college degree means even more to first-generation college students than to young people with college-educated parents. They tend to have greater satisfaction with their college experiences than their non-first-gen peers. They are also more diverse. While 70 percent of all college students are white, according to the U.S. Department of Education, white students make up just 49 percent of the first-gen pool.
First-generation students represent the best this country has to offer. Even with the systemic barriers they face in gaining access to higher education, they have persisted to become trailblazers in their families and communities. They exhibit the qualities of leadership that we need: resilience, ingenuity, creativity, commitment to community. A recent study showed that first-generation college students are significantly more inclined to give back to their communities and help their families than their non-first-generation peers. First-gen students have left indelible imprints on our society: Albert Einstein, John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Thurgood Marshall, Sonia Sotomayor, Michelle Obama, Samuel Jackson, and Tennessee Williams, to name a few. They are pioneers by definition. They are innovators and trendsetters. They represent the bold and thoughtful leadership that we so desperately need in this complicated moment.
Unfortunately, our society has yet to seize the opportunity to change our country’s trajectory by investing in first-generation talent. These students are over-represented at two-year colleges and disproportionately enrolled in less selective institutions—and the opportunity gap widens from there. Today, barely one of five low-income, first-generation students graduates from college within six years. Even when they persist and graduate, they earn on average 27 percent less than their peers with college-educated parents.
Since their parents are not college-educated, first-generation college students are mostly excluded from legacy pools. More broadly, these talented young people don’t get the benefits of financial legacies, the money that pays for SAT tutors or private schools or homes in public school districts with more resources. In addition, most first-generation college students have no way to tap into social capital legacies. They’re excluded from the web of connections that paves the road to admissions into top colleges (often with large parental donations attached), or top-tier internships or, ultimately, jobs with top law firms, banks, or tech companies. They face a tougher path to leadership in every sector of the workforce.
At many of the highest-ranked colleges and universities in the U.S., from 10 to 15 percent of their spots go to legacies. Once this practice is eliminated, we could begin to make up for more than a century of exclusion by reserving these spots for first-generation college students.
Higher education is a crucial tool for training our next generation of leaders. By 2060, white people will no longer be the majority in the United States. To prepare for that inevitable demographic shift, we must invest in diverse young leaders—many of whom are the first in their family to go to college. America Needs You fights for economic mobility for low-income, first generation college students. Our hope is that the next generation of leaders will reflect the rich diversity of our nation. To achieve that at scale, colleges and universities must invest in first-generation talent. The elimination of legacy preference is an important step toward the goal of equity that they espouse. But it is just one step. We also need to invest in pipeline programs to help low income, first-generation students gain access to college. And we need active measures to retain those students to enable them to graduate and enter the workforce with a college degree.
With the future of affirmative action looking bleak, the end of legacy admissions is no panacea for equity in higher ed. The daughters and sons of well-off alumni will still be going to the best-funded high schools. They’ll still get the strongest college counseling. They’ll still have the expectation from birth that they’ll be going off to college. Exemplary first-generation college students will continue to be underrepresented at top colleges and universities. The barriers they face are systemic.
Each day, our team gets to see the brilliance of the young people with whom we work. We are also constantly reminded of the deep well of untapped talent in this country. Legacy preferences in elite college admissions is a prime example of how our society has struggled to fulfill the promise of equal opportunity. With more equitable support from colleges and universities, first-generation students can earn invaluable degrees. They can be set on a path toward leadership. And they can provide their families and communities a path forward into a more inclusive future for the next generation.
 Irlbeck, E., Adams, S., Akers, C., Burris, S., & Jones, S. (2014). First Generation College Students: Motivations and Support Systems. Journal of agricultural education, 55(2), 154-166.
 Redford, J., & Mulvaney Hoyer, K. (2017). First generation and continuing-generation college students: A comparison of high school and postsecondary experiences.
 Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: how American universities’ focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(6), 1178.
 Cahalan, M. W., Addison, M., Brunt, N., Patel, P. R., & Perna, L. W. (2021). Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2021 Historical Trend Report. Pell institute for the study of opportunity in higher education.
 Fry, R. (2021). First-generation College Graduates Lag Behind Their Peers on Key Economic Outcomes.
 Duffy, E. A., & Goldberg, I. (2014). Crafting a class: College admissions and financial aid, 1955-1994 (Vol. 77). Princeton University Press.