Updated: May 6
The identities of first-generation college students are complex. There is no agreed-upon definition of what qualifies a student as first-generation. Common definitions include students whose parents never attended college, students whose parents never earned degrees, and students who are the first in their family to attend college. Regardless of which definition you subscribe to, it can be agreed upon that these students are pioneers for those who come after them. Postsecondary education is challenging to navigate under the most ideal circumstances. It is a mark of fortitude to pursue a college education without a family example to follow. While equitable access to college admission is a critical part of the conversation surrounding first-generation college students, for the purposes of this post, I will only be focusing on creating an equitable environment once students have been admitted.
According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, first-generation college students make up 34% of all college students. This unique demographic faces equally unique challenges as they embark on their college journey. With over 75% of first-generation college students needing employment during their freshman year and generally demonstrating lower rates of college readiness, it is easy to see why less than 50% of this demographic is likely to graduate on time. These students often need more time to focus on their studies than their peers while having less time to do so due to their need to work to support themselves. First-generation college students often become overwhelmed with these circular challenges and don't know where to turn, resulting in their withdrawal from college. The tension between needing employment and requiring more time for school work is just one example of the challenges faced by first-generation college students.
Statistics demonstrate that this is a highly intersectional demographic, so these students often face layered complexities in navigating the postsecondary landscape. First-generation college students are more likely to be students of color, are often low-income, or from communities where access to college education is uncommon. With an average age of 24, first-generation students are commonly older than their college peers and statistically more likely to have children to support, making them more likely to require employment while in college. These statistics bear out the intersectional identities referenced above and create a clearer picture of the obstacles faced by first-generation college students. A 2007 study of first-generation college students conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) suggests that these circumstances negatively impact student outcomes. In response, institutions must identify intersectional approaches to fulfilling their respective missions in a way that is inclusive of these underserved populations.
Low-income first-generation college students face multi-dimensional challenges beyond affording tuition. A lack of postsecondary experience leaves families of first-generation students far less informed about the many complexities of financing a college education. With higher rates of student loan borrowing compared to their peers, this leaves first-generation students uninformed about a very serious financial decision in the best of circumstances and a prime target for unethical recruitment practices at worst. In 2013, 46 percent of first-generation student loan borrowers attended institutions in the bottom 25 percent of default rate measurements. Since an institution's default rate is a key indicator of whether graduates can obtain sufficient income post-graduation and student loans are subject to wage garnishment and historically one of the most difficult debts to absolve, this statistic demonstrates that first-generation college students can suffer the negative effects of making uninformed decisions about attending college for long into their future.
Comprehensive Support Services
Schools often make the mistake of limiting support services to socioeconomic offerings, which leaves many students to fall through the cracks. Due to the intersectional nature of first-generation college student identities, not all students will need all available support services. A robust offering of first-generation support services ensures that the appropriate type of support is available for everyone.
Since first-generation college students often lack personal role models for college attendance, facilitating a community support group of people who share a first-generation educational experience is an important yet often overlooked support service. Including all campus community members- from students to faculty and staff- can provide students with many perspectives for successfully navigating postsecondary education. Individual mentorships can provide increased support for students who need it.
Statistics show that first-generation college students are generally less ready for college than their peers and are more likely to require remedial coursework. In response, these students need access to comprehensive academic support services, including early intervention support. This support should include peer-to-peer and faculty tutoring.
First-generation students need access to additional financial aid resources, including, but not limited to, financial support. Since many of these students are low-income, extra financial support is needed to help pay for living expenses in addition to tuition in order to allow students to invest the time necessary for their studies. Students will often only be able to take advantage of the aforementioned support services if they have supplemental financial aid to make up for time not working. Additionally, these students need access to holistic financial education regarding the different options for paying for college so that they can make informed decisions.
Targeted Promotion of Support Services
Even the best-designed support programs will be ineffective if they remain unused. The fact that first-generation students are less likely to seek support should be a significant consideration when developing ways to promote these support programs. Institutional outreach is critical for connecting first-generation students with the services they need for success. It is necessary to promote a culture of normalcy in utilizing student support services. Soliciting other students to engage in peer outreach can help first-generation students see the value in taking advantage of available services and eliminate any stigma students may have about accepting support.
First-generation college students deserve access to a comprehensive system of support at all institutions so that they have access to the same options as their counterparts. For this reason, every college and university should have a robust support system in place for first-generation college students aimed at providing a measure of equity that they may succeed at the same rate as their peers.