First Generation Challenges

Students whose parents didn't go to college are at a disadvantage in every stage of higher education, study finds.
August 10, 2005

The history of American higher education is full of stories of students who succeeded even though their parents never had much of an education:the freed slaves and their children and grandchildren who enrolled at historically black colleges, the immigrants and their children who enrolled at City College in New York City, the World War II veterans who used the GI Bill to pay for educations in the Ivy League institutions and top public universities.

More recently, as colleges have faced criticism over affirmative action, many have pledged to reach out to "first generation" students -- those whose parents never went to college.

But for all the history and all the talk, a report Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that first generation students are at a disadvantage throughout their time at colleges and universities. They enter without as much preparation, they get lower grades, and they are more likely to drop out. The report also notes significant differences in the choices of majors of students whose parents did and did not go to college.

The study was based on a long-term research project examining the educational records of people who were 12th graders in 1992. Most of the data focus on the subset of those students who went on to higher education, but a comparison of all of those 12th graders and those who continued their educations yields the first difference between those whose parents did and did not have a college education: Of the entire 1992 cohort, 28 percent did not have parents who had gone to college, but only 22 percent of the cohort that had any higher education between 1992 and 2000 were such students.

Once in college, the attrition continues. More first generation students in the pool left college without any degree by 2000 (43 percent) than earned a bachelor's degree (24 percent). Of those whose parents were college graduates, 68 percent had completed a bachelor's degree and 20 percent had left without a degree.

Differences between first generation and other students were also apparent with regard to remedial education. More than half of first generation students took some remedial courses, compared to only 27 percent for those with parents who had at least a bachelor's degree. The need for remediation was especially high in mathematics, in effect limiting many students from considering certain majors. And the need for remediation slowed down the first generation students on earning credits in their first year -- a key fact since students who are on track after their first year are much more likely to graduate.

In general, students with a strong sense of direction are more likely to do well in higher education, and here again, first generation students lagged. A third of first generation students entered college without an intended major, compared to only 13 percent of students whose parents had a bachelor's degree.

When students picked majors, first generation students were more likely than other students to pick business or vocational fields, and were less likely to end up in the sciences or the humanities. The following table indicates the percentage of students in various categories who majored in particular areas (numbers do not add up to 100 because small categories and "other" are excluded):

Major First Generation Parents With Some College Parents With Bachelor's Degrees
Business 14.2% 13.9% 11.9%
Education/social work 4.7% 5.5% 6.0%
Science 3.4% 5.0% 8.4%
Engineering/architecture 3.9% 4.1% 6.9%
Computer science 1.1% 2.7% 1.8%
Mathematics 0.1% 0.7% 1.1%
Humanities 1.6% 2.3% 6.7%
Arts/applied arts 2.2% 3.5% 6.0%
Social sciences 7.3% 9.9% 14.1%
Health science/services 8.0% 5.9% 6.2%
Journalism/communications 1.8% 2.4% 4.3%
Human/protective services 2.6% 2.7% 3.0%
Vocational/technical 6.2% 3.6% 2.4%

One reason some educators have been interested in first generation students is as a possible alternative to affirmative action based on race or ethnicity. The theory goes that critics of affirmative action would not have legal grounds to challenge preferences for first generation students, but such preferences would end up helping many minority students.

The data in the study suggest that this theory is true only to a point. First generation students are less likely to be white than are students whose parents have bachelor's degrees. But nearly two-thirds of first generation students are white.

The following is the race/gender breakdown for the students in the study:

Race/ethnicity First Generation Parents With Some College Parents With Bachelor's Degrees
American Indian 0.6% 0.6% 0.4%
Asian 4.7% 3.9% 6.5%
Black 13.7% 13.6% 5.3%
White 64.0% 73.6% 84.0%
Hispanic 16.9% 8.3% 3.8%


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