First Generation College Students Face Challenges in Achieving a Degree

Alex CasillasBy: Alex Casillas, Principal Research Scientist, Design-based Research, ACT

The number of first generation college students (FGCS) in the United States is higher than many people realize. According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, college students whose parents did not attend college make up approximately 33.5% of the student population (38.3% at 2-year institutions and 25.9% at four-year institutions).

As I reflect on these statistics, I think about my own experience. I, too, am a first generation college student (as well as an immigrant) who aspired to achieve a college education in the hopes that it would open up a path to better opportunities.  By many definitions, my story is one of success.  I not only graduated from a small liberal arts college, but also obtained a Ph.D. in psychology. I work in my chosen area of professional expertise for an employer that has a mission and values that are aligned to mine. After spending a substantial portion of my youth and early adulthood worrying about money, I have a sense of financial security now.  I have a family and two children who mean the world to me.

Reflecting on my path, the thought that keeps coming to mind is how fortunate I was to be in the right place at the right time. I was fortunate to have a family who, despite not having much money, placed a high value on education and were willing to make sacrifices so that I could have more educational opportunities than they did.  I was fortunate to come to the U.S. at a time where the immigration process was less hostile and perplexing.  I was fortunate to stumble across incredible mentors and role models who took the time to advocate on my behalf and who opened doors that I did not know existed.  I was fortunate to receive a generous financial aid package from a college that is committed to a need-blind financial aid policy.  Some folks who know me will argue that I’m hardworking, or good at looking for opportunities–or even “gritty” in today’s parlance.  This may be true, but the same can be said about many of my peers who have those qualities and yet did not experience the same positive outcomes.  So, why should someone’s success depend on good fortune?

In a chapter from a newly-published book, The First Year of College: Research, Theory, and Practice on Improving the Student Experience and Increasing Retention, my coauthors (Chen Zuo, Evan Mulfinger, Fred Oswald , all at Rice University) and I lay out some of the challenges that FGCS face, as well as some of the programs that have been shown to help them succeed.

In terms of challenges, FGCS are more likely to come from an underrepresented ethnic group, be working learners (often working for pay 20+ hours per week), to be financially on their own, to have dependents, and to come from low-income families. Prior to entering college, FGCS often lack sufficient knowledge about postsecondary education options that many continuing-generation students take for granted, including information on how to apply to college, how much it costs to attend, how to obtain financial aid, and examples of what college life “looks like.”  Although research on student success has repeatedly identified social and academic integration as one of the best predictors of college retention, FGCS are less likely to live on campus, the most common place where social integration occurs.  FGCS also face greater pressure not to go to college, either because of a lack of roles models or because of pressure to contribute to their family’s financial needs.

Examples of programming that have been demonstrated as effective to assisting FGCS include:

  • TRIO programs, which include eight federally-funded grants designed to assist underserved learners navigate the educational pipeline from secondary to postsecondary and beyond. These programs provide financial support, guidance, and training to assist FGCS in the preparation for and development in college.
  • Bridge programs that involve collaboration between high schools and higher education institutions.
  • Financial aid in the form of need-based scholarships, Pell grants, and on-campus work-study programs have been shown to help FGCS to mitigate the financial burden of attending college. Work-study programs also have the added benefit of facilitating students’ active presence and involvement in the college environment.
  • Living-learning programs create communities that, on a continuous basis, cultivate a sense of belonging by sharing residential experiences, academic activities, and related resources. These have been shown to increase students’ sense of social and academic integration.
  • Programs to combat stereotype threat (e.g., value affirmation technique, social belonging intervention) have been shown to reduce FGCS perceptions that they are “impostors” or don’t belong in a college environment due to their socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, place of origin, or other differences. These interventions have been shown to increase students’ sense of social belonging, reduce stress, and improve FGCS grades in first-year courses.

Given the high prevalence of FGCS like myself, as researchers, educators, administrators, and policymakers, we should all be more aware of the challenges these individuals face and should be doing more to support programs that help to create communities that are inclusive, engaging, and supportive for all students.  Below are three recommendations that my coauthors and I make in our chapter:

  1. Understand the interaction of FGCS identity with their other group identities (such as race/ethnicity, gender, rural/urban, place of origin), and how this intersectionality plays a role in students shaping their identity as capable and responsible citizens of the world.
  2. Help students and institutions to understand and develop the positive side of first generation identity, such as being role models for siblings, a source of motivation and pride, or contributing a more diverse perspective to the college community.
  3. Invest in research to better understand the processes linking social integration of FGCS to academic and career development.

Student success should not be a matter of good fortune. Every student deserves to have the necessary supports to attain a college degree. Although being FGCS may be associated with a variety of challenges, there are effective programs that help to even the odds of success—and more research could enhance and extend these.  No matter which way the political winds blow, the success of FGCS students will help to determine our success as a country and a society; looking out for their interests in looking out for our own.