The Journey of First Generation College Students

Nearly 20% of 7.3 million full-time undergraduates attending four-year public and private institutions are classified as being first-generation students (according to a recent New York Times article). The term “first-generation” seems to mean different things to different organizations and institutions. Some apply the term to students whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees. Others, such as the National Center for Education Statistics, associate first-generation students with parents who have no college experience.

Since 1 in 5 college students are the first in their families to attempt or earn a college degree, it is important to consider the characteristics, experiences, and commitments that each student brings to college. Typically, institutions tend to either be primarily concerned with how retention is impacted by characteristics of entering students or how the institution establishes a student-centered environment after entry, according to Dr. Paul Thayer, author of Retention of Students from First Generation and Low Income Backgrounds. Consequently, institutions will focus on recruiting students they feel will be most successful or developing student programs to support them once they arrive on campus. Thayer argues, however, institutions will meet the greatest success if both aspects are addressed and strengthened.

In order to do this, I'd like to take you on a journey that allows you to walk alongside a first generation student. We will cover the challenges these students face, the resources available to assist them in their transition to and through college, and the institutions that have proven effective in helping first generation students succeed.

First, let’s examine some of the common characteristics of first generation students to develop a solid understanding of the challenges they face:

  • Less academic preparation
  • Lower pre-college critical thinking levels as compared to their non-first generation peers
  • Limited access to information about the college experience
  • Lack knowledge of time management, college finances, budget management, and the culture of higher education
  • Less support to attend college from families
  • Less likely to perceive a warm welcome to campus

Overall, first generation students are entering an environment that is likely drastically different from the one they grew up in. They may even find themselves torn between two different cultures and challenged by the tension this presents. Therefore, it is vital to develop support strategies for these students, and likely to impact overall retention rates.

Consider these statistics about first generation student graduation rates from a study conducted by UCLA in 2011:

“While 42 percent of students whose parents attended college graduated within four years, only 27 percent of first-generation students graduated within four years.

While nearly 60 percent of students whose parents attended college graduated within five years, less than 45 percent of first-generation students graduated in the same time frame.

While 64 percent of students whose parents attended college graduated within six years, only 50 percent of first-generation students earned their degrees in that time frame.”

In order to fully support this population of students, efforts must address the obstacles they typically face. This includes, but is not limited to: lack of financial assistance; lack of knowledge of a campus environment, academic expectations, and administrative operations; lack of academic preparation; and lack of family support.

Institutional efforts must ease the challenges students face as they transition to college and alleviate some of the cultural conflict that students experience between their home community and college community. To be most effective, strategies to assist first generation students will support them holistically.

In addition to utilizing support on college campuses, there are a few online resources that first generation students can use to help navigate the college experience. The Center for Student Opportunity created I’m First! an online community designed to support current and future first generation college students. Here, students can find colleges that are designated as being supportive to first generation students. Information is provided about each college’s support programs, diversity and student success statistics, financial assistance, and admissions information. Students can also watch videos and read stories about fellow first generation students.

Another online community, offers a more comprehensive resource for first generation students. It provides information on high school student planning, finding the right institution, the application process, financial aid assistance, doing well in college, and transitioning into life after college.

In the next post of this series, we will take a look a closer look at the financial obstacles first generation students face, resources that students can utilize to overcome these obstacles, and institutions that have financial assistance practices in place to assist this growing population of students.

About the author: Kaitlin Wolfert is a Student Success Advocate at Chestnut Hill College and has seven years of higher education experience. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in Organizational Leadership through Eastern University. Kaitlin loves cooking, working out, traveling, and diving into a good book. Connect with Kaitlin on LinkedIn.

Kaitlin Wolfert

Academic Adviser, Penn State Abington