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First-Generation College Students

Explores the issue of low degree completion rates among first-generation college students and identifies methods that colleges can use to close the achievement gap

Danielle Lynch

on 17 November 2014

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Transcript of First-Generation College Students

First-Generation College Students:
Why is retention so important to institutions?
Customer Satisfaction:
increases the personal and financial success of its students; keeps students and their families happy

Financial and Administrative Health:
indicates sound business practices; helps maintain high-quality staff and faculty; improves the bottom line

raises national rankings and educational standing in the industry; attracts new students


Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act, DREAM Act, TRIO Student Support Services Program
First Generation Students (FGS)
1 in 5 children have at least one foreign-born parent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010)

1 in 6 first-time, full-time freshmen are FGS (HERI, 2007)

30% of all students in post secondary programs are FGS (Center for Student Opportunity)

25% of all students in post secondary programs are first-generation
low-income (Engle & Tinto, 2008)

8.5 times more likely to drop out than students whose parents both graduated from college (Ishitani, 2006)

FGS consistently remain 14 percentage points behind their traditional peers in degree attainment (Franke et al, 2011)
U.S. Participation and Graduation Rates
One of the highest college participation rates worldwide (OECD, 2007)
Tied for last in baccalaureate degree completion (Ibid)
Enrollments have nearly doubled in the past 35 years (NCES, 2007)
Graduation rates have stagnated (Franke, Hurtado, Pryor & Tran, 2011)
Closing the Achievement Gap
Beyond Access
Despite increased accessibility and opportunities, such as better pathways to higher education and new innovations in the delivery of education, a college degree still remains a dream for most Americans.
Background Matters
Characteristics of First-Generation Students

Lower college performance
Poor cultural capital
Lack of insight
Longer degree completion
Less likely to seek help
Less engaged

Only 11% of students who are low-income
first-generation received a Bachelor's degree within 6 years. Most left college, often before their second year. Adding variables such as race, gender, disability, etc. further widens the achievement gap between these and traditional students.
U.S. participation and graduation rates
Statistics: generational differences in degree completion
Characteristics of first-generation students
Why is a Bachelor's degree important?
Challenges and risk factors for these students
Why is retention important?
Factors leading to persistence
Intervention strategies
Lohfink and Paulsen
Putting theory into practice
Relevance to my work and specialization in higher education administration
Carnevale, A. P., Rose, S. J., & Cheah, B. (2013). The college payoff: Education, occupations, lifetime earning. Retrieved from:

Center for Student Opportunity. (n.d.)
I'm First!
Retrieved April 30, 2014 from: http://www.imfirst.org

Chen, X., & Carroll, C. D. (2005). First-Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts. Postsecondary Education Descriptive Analysis Report. NCES 2005-171.
National Center for Education Statistics.
Retrieved from:

Curtin, T. R., Wu, S., Adelman, C., Daniel, B., & Scott, L. A. (2004). Postsecondary Education Transcript Study (PETS: 2000): Supplement to the NELS: 88/2000 Base-year to Fourth Follow-up Data Files User’s Manual (NCES 2004–401). Washington DC: US Department of Education.
National Center for Educational Statistics
. Retrieved from: http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED485756

College Student Journal
, 38(1). Retrieved from:

Engle, J., Bermeo, A., & O'Brien, C. (2006). Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students.
Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education
. Retrieved from: http://www.tgslc.org/pdf/StraightfromtheSource.pdf

Engle, J., & Tinto, V. (2008).
Moving beyond access: College success for low-income, first-generation students.
Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. Retrieved from: http://www.pellinstitute.org/publications-Moving_Beyond_Access_2008.shtml

Filkins, J. W., & Doyle, S. K. (2002). First Generation and Low Income Students: Using the NSSE Data To Study Effective Educational Practices and Students. Self-Reported Gains. AIR 2002 Forum Paper. Retrieved from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED473113.pdf

Franke, R., Hurtado, S., Pryor, J. H., & Tran, S. (2011).
Completing college: Assessing graduation rates at four-year institutions.
Higher Education Research Institute, Graduation School of Education & Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved from:

Horn, L., Berger, R., & Carroll, C. D. (2004).
College Persistence on the Rise?: Changes in 5-Year Degree Completion and Postsecondary Persistence Rates Between 1994 and 2000
. US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from:

Haskins, R., Isaacs, J., & Sawhill, I. (2008). Getting ahead or losing ground: Economic mobility in America.
Washington: The Brookings Institution
. Retrieved from: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2008/2/economic%20mobility%20sawhill/02_economic_mobility_sawhill.pdf

Ishitani, T. T. (2006). Studying attrition and degree completion behavior among first-generation college students in the United States.
Journal of Higher Education
, 861-885. Retrieved from: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jhe/summary/v077/77.5ishitani.html

Kaufman, P. (1992).
Characteristics of At-Risk Students in NELS: 88. National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.
Contractor Report. US Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Mail Stop: SSOP, Washington, DC 20402-9328. Retrieved from: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs92/92042.pdf
from 'First-Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts. Postsecondary Education Descriptive Analysis Report.' by Chen and Carroll, 2005,
National Center for Education Statistics
Supplement to the NELS: 88/2000 Base-year to Fourth Follow-up Data Files User’s Manual by Curtin, Adelman, Daniel & Scott, 2004,
National Center for Educational Statistics
Figure #1: Differences in Generational Attainment
Figure #2: Low-income, first-generation degree completion
Note: Adapted from Horn, Berger, & Carroll, 2004, US Department of Education; and Engle & Tinto, 2008,
Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education
'Each student that leaves before degree completion costs the college or university thousands of dollars in unrealized tuition, fees, and alumni contributions.' (DeBerard, 2006)
First-generation students are all around us
Michelle Obama is among the success stories.
Why is a Bachelor's degree so important?
Challenges facing FGS
FGS Demographics

Single parent
Have a GED
Financially independent from parents
Dependent Children
Non-native English speaker/not born in U.S.

Attrition Risk Factors
Delayed entry into
higher education
Single parent
Have a GED
Financially independent from parents
Working full-time
Attending part-time
Non-continuous enrollment
Socioeconomic Advancement
41% of graduates rise from the bottom fifth of parental income to the top two-fifths vs. 14% of those without a degree (Brookings Institution, 2008)
59% increase in income (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013a)
Earnings are 75% more over a lifetime (Carnevale, Rose & Cheah, 2013)
Unemployment rate drops from 7.5% (with high school diploma) to 4% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013a)
Eligibility for better jobs with more benefits

Personal Development
Improves self-esteem, self-efficacy, confidence and critical thinking skills

Professional Development
Enhances status, credibility, job satisfaction and job performance
About 1/3 of jobs require a post secondary degree (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013b)
Longer job tenure (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012)
Compounding Problems
: family and job responsibilities; less parental involvement; lack of immediate role models; unaware of "rules of the game"; lack of support or even discouragement from family and friends

: low expectations; less academic preparation; slow credit accumulation

: poor class participation; inflexible scheduling; delayed or nonexistent extracurricular involvement; non-continuity of attendance

: guilt, shame, inferiority, isolation

: lack of insight about why they are struggling; belief that people with their backgrounds do not deserve college

: lack of financial literacy; few financial resources

: difficulty transferring from a community college
Lohfink and Paulsen
Signifiers toward first-to-second-year persistence for FGS
15 out of 42 independent variables were found to be statistically significant

Three major institutional variables
Faculty reputation
Ability to live at home
Public institutions

One major performance-related variable
For every one-point increase in GPA, persistence rose 12.5%

Gender inequities
Males were significantly more likely to persist

Active Learning
Project-designed freshman year
Career exploration programs
Service learning/work-study opportunities
Summer "bridge" programs
Student-Faculty/Staff Interaction
Advising and mentoring by faculty
Faculty development programs
Intrusive advising
First-year monitoring
First-year seminars
Student-Peer Interaction
Mentoring and tutoring by peers
Learning communities
Difference-education programs
Determinants to Success:
How and why do FGS persist?
"Leaving is not the mirror image of staying. Knowing why students leave does not tell us, at least not directly, why students persist." (Tinto, 2006)
Relevance to my own work
Diversity at Northeastern University
16% first-generation students
45% non-white
14% Pell grant recipients among freshmen
79% six-year graduation rate
66% six-year graduation rate for underrepresented minorities
: beyond a four-year degree
: live at home near college
College choice
: large, public institutions
Academic integration
: study habits; time management; course selection; preparedness; first year credit completion and performance
Social integration
: understanding expectations; navigating institutional bureaucracies
Cultural adaptation
: overcoming isolation and alienation; navigating norms, values, choices
Social satisfaction
: parental/familial support; work/life balance
: student activities; use of campus resources; faculty interaction/validation

"...strategies that are effective for increasing persistence of first generation and low income students are also successful for increasing the persistence rates of the general campus population as well." (Thayer, 2000)
Source: Center for Student Opportunity
by Danielle Lynch
College enrollments in the U.S. have increased, but degree completion has not; higher education has become a "revolving door". This is particularly true for underrepresented populations as severe inequities in academic success continue. FGS are among those who disproportionately share the heavy consequences of not completing a degree. It is no longer acceptable to simply allow a student to fall through the cracks.

I am a first-generation college student, although I didn't know it until I began my research. I had long placed the blame for my difficult educational path on poor decisions and weak character. Now I understand exactly what I was up against and can appreciate the many obstacles overcome. This experience inspires me in my work as an administrator and mentor at Northeastern, where I plan to take what I am learning to better understand, serve and guide students from challenging backgrounds.
Every student, each degree, matters
"[F]irst-generation status itself is a risk factor even after
taking demographic and enrollment characteristics into
account." (Engle, Bermeo & O'Brien, 2006)
FGS are also...

In possession of a great work ethic
Somewhat nimble culture-crossers
Theory into Practice
How can retention actions can become integrated into academic life?

Which persistence behaviors should be encouraged?

What forms of engagement are meaningful to FGS?

Can faculty and staff reward systems improve retention?

How do we connect with, support and advocate for FGS?

Which student services should remain a priority over others?

What is the best way to identify these students early?

How can faculty identify adjustment-related problems?
Retention is Big Business
U.S. News and World Report

Consulting Firms:
Noel-Levitz Higher Education Consulting

Academic Journals:
Journal of College Student Retention

Non-profit Agencies:

Lumia Foundation for Education

International Student Retention Conference

Accountability Tools:
VSA College Portrait

First-Generation Students (FGS):
Those students whose parent(s) have not received a four-year degree

the ability of an institution to retain a student [in consecutive terms] from admission through graduation (Seidman, 2005)

refers to a student who fails to re-enroll at an institution in consecutive terms (Ibid)

desire and action of a student to stay within the system of higher education from beginning through degree completion (Ibid)

At-Risk Student:
considered to have a higher probability of failing academically or dropping out of school (Kaufman, 1992)
Key Terms
Lohfink, M. M., & Paulsen, M. B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students.
Journal of College Student Development
, 46(4), 409-428. Retrieved from:

Lollock, L. (2001). The foreign-born population in the United States.
Current Population Reports, US Census Bureau
. Retrieved from:

Matthews, D. (2010).
A stronger nation through higher education
. Lumina Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.luminafoundation.org/stronger_nation

Oecd. (2007).
Education At a Glance 2007: Oecd Indicators. OECD.
Retrieved from: http://www.oecd.org/education/skills-beyond-school/40701218.pdf

Pryor, J. H., Hurtado, S., Saenz, V. B., Santos, J. L., & Korn, W. S. (2007). The American freshman: Forty year trends.
Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute,
3. Retrieved from: http://heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/40TrendsManuscript.pdf

Seidman, A. (2005). Minority student retention: Resources for practitioners.
New Directions for Institutional Research
, 2005(125), 7-24. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ir.136/pdf

Somers, P., Woodhouse, S., & Cofer, J. (2004). Pushing the boulder uphill: The persistence of first-generation college students.
Naspa Journal, 41(3)
. Retrieved from: http://onesearch.northeastern.edu/NU:TN_ericEJ746539

Stallings, J. B. (2011). Self-efficacy and first-generation students in a physician assistant program. Retrieved from:

Thayer, P. B. (2000). Retention of Students from First Generation and Low Income Backgrounds. Retrieved from:

Tinto, V. (2006). Research and practice of student retention: what next?
Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice
, 8(1), 1-19. Retrieved from: http://baywood.metapress.com/link.asp?id=4ynu4tmb22djan4w

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013a).
Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment
[data file]. Retrieved from:

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013b).
Employment by summary education and training assignment, 2012 and projected 2022
[data file]. Retrieved from: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_001.htm

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012). Median years of tenure with current employer for employed wage and salary workers 25 years and over by educational attainment, sex, and age, January 2012 [data file]. Retrieved from: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/tenure.t04.htm
Note: from 'A stronger nation through higher education' by Matthews, 2010, Lumina Foundation.
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