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First Generation College Students: A Journey Without Maps

Updated: May 10, 2023

Educational Innovations International Consulting, LLC


Prevalence of First Generation College Students

With the expansion of higher education more adults have a 4-year college degree (21% in 1990 vs. 33% in 2015); yet, the percentage of university students who are first-generation college students (FGS) remains significant (about 37% in 1999 and approximately 33% in 2012). The most commonly used definition for FGS is a reference limiting the term to describe the first person in his/her/their family to attend college. There are more encompassing definitions that describe the many variations of what constitutes FGS. For example, FGS may include student with one parent holding a 4-year degree; one or both parents attending but not finishing college; a sibling or close relative with a 4-year degree; or a mentor that has a 4-year degree. Using a sample size of 7,300 individuals, Toutkoushian, Stollberg, and Slaton (2018) investigated the range of FGS identified when applying different definitions of the term FGS. In their study, the number of students who could be classified as FGS ranged from 22% to 77%. A reasonable estimate is that FGS comprise 24% to 33% of entering students at two year and four-year institutions. Many FGS come from a lower socio-economic background, underrepresented minorities, rural communities, and struggle to be able to pay for college. In 2012, 25% of white and Asian-American students, 42% of African-American, and 48% of Hispanic students were FGS.

These students enter higher education without the benefit of having a family member(s) or another close mentor, who can guide and provide advice and context during this critical period of social, cognitive, intellectual, and emotional development.

FGS as Unprepared Students

Most FGS begin their college journey anxious, scared, bewildered, unsure, and without a sense of belonging or a clear idea of what to expect and what is expected of them. Unlike peers who have parents with colleges degrees theirs’ is a journey without maps. The completion and retention of FGS is significantly lower than peers who have family member(s) with four-year degrees. However, those who complete a four-year degree are as successful as adults and just as likely to pursue post-graduate education as students whose parents have a four-year degree.

Many current faculty are themselves FGS and appreciate and empathize with the challenges FGS face. But truthfully, for many faculty, their college journey occurred decades ago at a time when human existence was less social-technologically complicated, higher education was more affordable, and perhaps considered less complicated. Like all FGS, they grappled with three life questions: Who am I?, What will I do?, and Will I succeed? Often, they felt like an imposter, as they struggled with FGS challenges despite the fact most benefited from a privileged white male status. Due to changing demographics, increasingly FGS are from under-represented groups and experience additional difficulties related to, racial, cultural, gender, religious, and social stereotyping biases.


Institutional Support: Formal Programs and Campus Culture

At most institutions, there are initiatives to assist and support FGS. In such instances, there is likely an increased appreciation for the importance and value of diversity and inclusivity in higher education. Despite these advances, many FGS continue to lack a sense of belonging and struggle to fit in. Often addressing FGS issues is done by student life, bridge programs, and federal initiatives such as the TRIO and McNair programs. Such programs focus on student life activities, which are an essential component of the university experience but are typically disconnected from academics which are the central core of the university. A second means of supporting FGS related issues is through academic advising. Likewise, this strategy is also outside the classroom experiences. Moreover, advising is many times voluntary; when it is mandated, the scope of advising consists of a brief meeting once or twice a year, to help select courses. Often during advising the FGS meets with a professional advisor or a faculty member the student does not know.


Classroom Strategies for Inclusion

As faculty, how can we better meet the needs of all FGS, and help them develop a sense of academic belonging and not feel like an imposter? The first step may be merely identifying who are FGS in our courses, while this information may be encoded into to the Student Information System. Such information is often not readily accessible to faculty. One suggestion is to collect this information at the beginning of the semester with other relevant information. Since I frequently use student group work in my classes at the start of each course, I collect the following demographic information: gender, year of study, GPA range, major, number of people in the immediate family with a college degree, etc. This information is used to assign students to groups (Benson, 2017). Knowing who are FGS is useful but does not address the journey without maps issues. Most students by their third year at an institution have figured out the system, have a set of peer mentors, and have a pretty good idea of university expectations and how to meet them and a sense of belonging. By the third year of study, FGS who have not managed that degree of integration often leave or have already left the institution.



Help Students Navigate

Here are a few suggestions to help beginning FGS and transfer students map out their academic journey and develop a sense of belonging.

  • Have all students submit a 20-50 word biographical sketch via the class Learning Management System.

  • Learn the names of as many students as possible.

  • Encourage or require all students to meet with you at least once in the semester, for larger classes one can meet with a small group [3-5] of students at a time

  • Help student develop effective study strategies.

  • Explicitly include examples and models from non-traditional groups, e.g., contributions of women in STEM classes, non-western examples to illustrate course concepts and the diversity and complexity of the disciple.

  • Be sensitive to the cultural, social and economic diversity of the students and try where possible to use examples and illustrations relevant to their world. Be careful when dealing with sensitive issues and hot topics and consider whether you want a trigger policy (Zakrajsek, 2018).

  • Be inclusive of all students, even those that you wish had not signed up for the class.

  • Lastly, try to be open and welcoming and share with students your own experiences that mapped your journey as a student, see your class as a community of learners in which you are member and foster community development.


Discussion Questions

  1. If you are a FGS, identify what helped you to successfully graduate.

  2. As a faculty member, what strategies do you intentionally employ to explicitly help or engage FGS students? What strategies could you incorporate into your classroom(s)?

  3. What resources does your institution provide to support FGS?


References

Benson, S., 2017, Assigning Student to Groups, Centre for Teaching and Learning

Enhancement, Teaching Tip, University of Macau, Macau SAR

National Center for Educational Statics https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018421.pdf

Postsecondary National Policy Institute http://pnpi.org/first-generation-students/

Toutkoushian, R. K., Stollberg, R. A. and A. Slaton, K.A. 2018, Talking 'Bout My

Generation: Defining “First-Generation College Students in Higher Education

Research Teachers College Record Volume 120, p. 1-38

Zakrajsek, T., 2018 Trigger Warnings: Considerations for a More Learner-Centered

Environment Scholarly Teacher Blog.


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Todd Zakrajsek
Todd Zakrajsek
Mar 21, 2019

Gillian - Transparency plays a huge role in student buy-in and is often overlooked by faculty. Sharing the rationale behind the assignment only takes a moment and feeds both the cognitive and affective domains. Thanks for the reminder.

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Great points here on how crucial belonging is, especially in learning settings. (Not only the 18-24 crowd; adult learners often feel out of place returning to school...) Howard's suggestion here is spot-on too, as FGS students often don't know of all the resources available--resources that can make a great difference in their performance and quality of life on campus. I would add lessons from transparent teaching to this FGS focus: Making explicit the "why" of assignments (the purpose, the task itself, and the criteria of the task). This transparency about course/assignment design invites students into their own learning, stokes their interest and commitment to their assignments and learning across the semester.

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Great point, Howard. There are so many aspects of campus that are second nature to us and students may not even know they exist. Parents who have not been college students don't even know what to recommend to their struggling daughter or son.

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Howard Aldrich
Howard Aldrich
Mar 14, 2019

I would add another suggestion: make sure the FGS know about on-campus learning resources, such as the Writing Center, the Learning Center, the Center for Students with Disabilities, and so forth. Have staff members from these centers visit your class & talk about their services. Be pro-active in recommending, either face to face or via email, that students visit these resource centers.

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