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First-Generation College Students


Hello! My name is Billy Evans. I was a graduate assistant on the College Prep 101 Development Team. I am very interested in the subject of First Generation College Students, because I belong to this special group of students. I came to OSU without any knowledge of what to expect at college. I was the first person in my family to attend college. I did not even know that I needed a backpack! As a result, I have done some research on how students like myself and others can be successful in college. The following information should be helpful to you as you begin your college journey. Good luck!

What does it mean to be a first-generation college student?
        It means that you are the first person in your immediate family that is going to attend college. Since your parents did not go to college, you may be at a disadvantage when it comes to support (emotional and financial). You may need some added support from college staff and faculty to help you get some basic knowledge about college, and how to make your years there successful. This may not be true with all first-generation college students.

The Following Is A List Of Helpful Areas That Eductators And First-Generation College Students May Need To Address.


Identifying First-Generation College Students

        Billson and Terry (1982) defined first-generation college students as those students whose parents have had no college or university experience. These students have been defined as being from blue-collar backgrounds containing lower levels of formal education (Bean & Metzner, 1985). When compared to the "traditional student", first-generation college students had lower pre-college critical thinking abilities, and were more likely to come from low income families, and to have been encouraged by teachers (not parents) to attend college, and to be Hispanic (Terenzini, Springer, Pascarella, & Nora, 1995). There are differences between first-generation and traditional students with respect to their basic knowledge of college, personal commitment, and level of family support, with first-generation students being at a disadvantage in most cases (York-Anderson & Bowman, 1992).The contemporary student is no longer upper middle class, adolescent, or male; instead the proportion of working class and minority students has increased dramatically (London, 1992). Students whose social, personal and cultural backgrounds have not adequately prepared them, often cannot readily adjust and become active participants in the academic and social community of the campus (Buck, 1982).

        First-generation college students share some common characteristics. Here are some statistics for this population as reported by the article Missed Opportunities. The article reports that first-generation students are less likely to complete the necessary steps to enroll in a four-year institution. Of first-generation students, only 36% aspire to a bachelor's degree or higher, 45% take the SAT or ACT, and only 26% apply to a four-year institution. By comparison, 78% of students for whom at least one parent has a bachelor's degree aspire to a bachelor's degree or higher, 82% take the ACT or SAT, and 71% apply to a four-year institution. The article goes on to say that first-generation students are more likely to delay enrollment in postsecondary education, which inhibits degree completion. Only 29% of first-generation students enroll in any postsecondary institution immediately after high school graduation, compared to 73% of students whose parents have college experience. 45% of all undergraduates are first-generation students. They are more likely to enroll on a part-time basis 53%, versus 38% of students whose parents went to college. Most of these students are enrolled in two-year institutions. The article concludes by saying, first-generation students also face barriers in attaining college degrees. Only 44% attain a degree within five years, compared to 56% of students whose parents have a bachelor's degree.

        One of the greatest challenges confronted by first-generation college students is college attendance represents a departure from the pattern established by family and friends, who may in turn become non-supportive or obstructionist (Hsiao, 1992). First-generation college students were at a disadvantage in comparison to the students whose parents had significant experience with the college or university setting (Billson & Terry, 1982). It is likely that parents who have experienced the educational process are in much better position to pass information about their college experiences on to their children, whereas parents of first-generation college students simply do not have that information to pass on to their children (York-Anderson & Bowman, 1991). First-generation students often sense displeasure on the part of acquaintances, and feel an uncomfortable separation from the culture in which they grew up. Such tensions frequently require the student to "renegotiate relationships" with friends and relatives, something which is not always done easily or with a happy ending (London, 1992).

Summer Bridge Programs

        The following are some specific suggestions about what colleges must do to improve the bottom line for first-generation college students that is, to enhance their learning, success, satisfaction, and retention. Faculty and student affairs administrators must reconnect our campuses to our host communities and begin working with pre-college students and their families, as well as with public school faculty and administrators in respective disciplines, to serve these students and families long before they come to us (Gardner, 1996).


        College summer bridge programs or transitional programs for high-risk, low-income and minority students are becoming an established part of the effort to recruit, retain, and graduate a population of high-risk students in higher education (Santa Rita & Bacote, 1993). Summer Bridge students had the highest retention among four comparison groups exceeding by 31 percent the rate of a comparable group of minority, low-income students (Meyers & Drevlow, 1982).
        Levin (1989) notes, some colleges offer summer programs that are specifically designed to encourage minority high school students to consider going to college. Clemson University Career Workshop is an enrichment program for minority students. The students spend two consecutive summers on campus. During that time they are introduced to fields of interest such as engineering, computer theory, mathematics, and communications. The only cost is transportation to and from campus.


        Astin (1985) states, frequent interaction with faculty members is more strongly related to satisfaction with college than any other type of involvement or, indeed, any other student or institutional characteristics. One means of fostering involvement with university faculty is through participation in small, highly individualized orientation classes with built-in opportunities for one-on-one contact with the professor outside the classroom (Higbee, 1989). Orientation is critically important for first-generation students, who often lack essential background knowledge about specific institutions and about higher education (Gardner, 1996).
        Sponholz (1996) describes a summer orientation program as a students chance to do all of your getting lost and looking like a clueless freshman before the other three classes arrive. Activities are usually organized at lots of different locations on campus, so you get some navigating experience. You find your way to the various classroom buildings, see where the faculty and administrative offices are, get a feel for living in the residence halls, and eat lunch in the cafeteria. Coming to school in the fall knowing your way around makes a world of difference. All of these experiences are very important for a first-generation college student who does not have anyone in their house to ask questions about these issues.

Counseling and Mentoring

        Wallace (1997) studied the effectiveness of formal mentoring programs for high-risk undergraduate students. Formal mentoring is defined as a deliberate matching of university personnel with high-risk students, a group which may include people of color, women, low-income persons, the physically challenged, and first generation college students. Wallace (1997) says, formal mentoring has evolved to promote students' emotional, environmental, and academic acculturation into the college environment. The study concluded that until our society can eliminate oppressive hierarchies that result in high risk students, formal mentoring programs should be fostered and encouraged. The study believes their research can provide the education community with powerful indices of the positive impact that formal mentoring relationships can have on high risk students' success and satisfaction in postsecondary education.
        Demery (1987) did a study of 115 special service students that were mainly first-generation students. The study was to determine how effective the Content-Guide-Checklist of 27 questions was in giving students appropriate counseling and achieve graduation. Demery (1987) says the service encourages the students to do the following:
Have effective relationships with his or her academic advisor and instructors.
Acquire and use good time management and classroom skills.
Use library resources frequently.
Get involved in support groups, other organizations and activities get to know others as others get to know him or her.

Campus Involvement

        Anything we can do to increase the amount of time that new college students spend on campus in study groups, in the library, in co-curricular activities, and especially in living and working on campus will enhance their probability of success (Gardner, 1996). Stegman (1969) conducted a study with experimental living area activities, designed to improve the retention ratio of college freshman. The objectives included the identification of potential dropout students and assigning them to an empathetic graduate assistant living in the residence hall. The assistant was charged with the responsibility of aiding the potential dropout group to stay in college successfully and in a self-satisfactory manner. The results of this study at Southwest Missouri State College found that the personal attention and help given to the experimental study groups may have been instrumental in accounting for a significant (beyond 95% confidence) raise in persistency of the experimental students as compared to their control counterparts (Stegman, 1969).
        We know that students who join groups stay in college longer and are more academically successful, and organized forms of campus involvement provide first-generation students with role models who understand and are committed to the academy (Gardner, 1996). Astin's theory (1985) of student involvement indicates that, the more students invest physical and psychological energy to get involved in the academic and social culture of the college, the greater the potential for student success.

Retention Programs

        Dale (1992) gives a description of the retention program at Purdue University called HORIZONS. He says the cornerstone of the project design is the required course for new students, "Strategies for Effective Academic Performance". This course has been taught since 1983 and allows the HORIZONS staff to:
Further assess student needs.
Ensure participation in appropriate program activities.
Teach needed affective skills.
Provide career, personal, and academic counseling.
Teach effective study methods.
Develop a sense of community within the student body.
Expose students to cultural programs.
Initiate and explain tutorial services.
Apply thinking skills to math, chemistry, and problem solving situations.
Provide assistance with financial aid.
Make peer counseling contacts.
Assign mentors and assign graded mentor discussion topics.


        I think that it is important for us as student affairs professionals to be aware of the first-generation college student. This population accounts for a very large number of our students, but I think they go unrecognized. We need to do a better job of identifying this at-risk population. This group of students will encounter the normal developmental issues that all freshman and transfer student's face, but they have less chance of navigating through them without our support. It is very important that faculty and staff make themselves aware of the needs of our multicultural population, because they need an equal opportunity to succeed and many of these students are the first in their families to attend college. I think that we should start connecting these students to college while they are still in high school, and have very intentional programs that allow them to get integrated into our campuses. Most importantly I think we should do all of these programs for ALL students regardless of their risk. If we would just show equal care and concern to everyone that chooses our schools, then maybe we could get rid of the term at-risk. Thank you.


        Astin, A. W. (1984). Student Involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 297-308.

        Author Unknown. (1997). Missed opportunities: A new look at disadvantaged college aspirants.
Massachusetts. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 420 257).

        Bean, J. P., & Metzner, B. S. (1985). A conceptual model of nontraditional undergraduate student attrition. Review of Educational Research, 55, 485-540.

        Billson, J. M., & Terry, M. B. (1982). In search of the silken purse: Factors in attrition among first-generation students. Rhode Island. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 214 431).

        Buck, C. B. (1982). Summer Bridge: A residential learning experience for high risk freshman at the University of California, San Diego. California. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 264 462).

        Dale, P. (1992). A successful college retention program. Indiana. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 380 017).

        Demery, M. (1987). Academic counseling: Content-Guide-Checklist for three interviews per semester. Louisiana. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 292 041).

        Gardner, J. N. (1996). Helping America's first-generation college students: A bottom-line list of institutions of higher learning must do. About Campus, Nov-Dec, 31-32.

        Higbee, J., L. (1989). Meeting the needs of high risk students through application of theory and research. Georgia. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 299 504).

        Hsiao, K., P. (1992). First-generation college students. California. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 351 079).

        Levin, S. (1989). Summer on campus. New York. College Board Publications.

        London, H., B. (1992). Transformations: Cultural challenges faced by first-generation students. New Direction for Community Colleges. No. 80, Winter.

        Meyers, C. & Drevlow, S. (1982). Summer bridge program: a dropout intervention porgram for minority and low-income students at the Universtiy of California, San Diego. California. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 216 630).

        Santa Rita, E. & Bacote, J., B. (1993). The benefits of college discovery prefreshman summer program for minority and low income students. New York. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 394536).

        Stegman, W., N. (1969). A study to develop living area activities designed to improve the retention ratio of potential student dropouts. Final Report. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 035 379).

        Terenzini, P., T. & others (1995). First-generation college students: Caracteristics, expeiences, and cognitive development. Pennsylvania. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 387 004).

        Wallace, D., & Abel, R. (1997). Clearing a path for success: Deconstructing borders in higher education through undergraduate mentoring. Louisiana. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 415 812).

        York-Anderson, D., C. & Bowman, S., L. (1992). Assessing the college knowledge of first-generation and second-generation college students. Journal of College Student Development, 32, 116-122.


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