Aiding First-Generation Students

Freshman survey data suggest challenges in easing way for students whose parents did not attend college.
January 26, 2006

Students who are the first in their families to attend college differ from their peers in important ways. They are more likely to be from low-income backgrounds, for instance, and on average they got lower grades in high school.

Because of those and other factors, college administrators must think about first-generation students differently and consider alternative ways of ensuring their academic and social success, researchers responsible for an annual survey of freshmen said Wednesday in releasing this year’s report.

“There is a unique set of concerns and expectations among first generation students,” John Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, said at a news conference unveiling the 2005 version of “The American Freshman.” “Institutions need to understand and validate the needs and concerns of these students to help them transition to college and achieve their educational goals.”  

Past research has indicated that students whose parents have no education beyond high school are significantly less likely to graduate than peers whose parents have at least a bachelor’s degree.  
This year’s data, based on surveys of 263,710 freshman students at 385 4-year colleges nationwide last fall, offered many details on this segment of the population in 2005. About one in six freshmen were first-generation college students, including 14.7 percent of all male students and 16.9 percent of all female students. Almost 30 percent of first-generation students come from homes with annual family incomes under $25,000, compared to 9.2 percent of non-first-generation students. 

First-generation students also report receiving lower grades in high school; about 37 percent of them reported a cumulative high school grade point average of of “A- or higher,” while more than 48 percent of their peers reported that level of achievement.

According to the report, mentors and high school educators play an important role in helping a first-generation student decide whether to go to college. Researchers found that encouragement from a mentor account was a “very important reason” for going to college for such students (20.5 percent) as compared to their peers (14.9 percent). Advice from a teacher or high school counselor was also more important (40.9 percent and 44.2 percent) for them than for students whose parents attended college (33.7 percent and 36.4 percent). 

Victor Saenz, director of followup surveys with the UCLA program, said Wednesday that more institutions are “being thoughtful on interviewing” first-generation students and trying to reach out to their high school counselors and teachers to help them realize that college is a possibility. “Colleges should be careful and mindful about how they communicate admissions information to their broader communities,” he said. “People who live in rural, urban and poor areas need often need more education on this matter, so colleges in these areas should explore ways to increase outreach efforts.” 

The financial burdens faced by some first-generation students tend to impair their “engagement,” academic and otherwise, once they get into college, said Pryor. Research has shown a correlation with one’s level of engagement and his or her successful completion of a degree.  

Because of their financial situation, “first-generation students are more likely than their peers to think that there is a very good chance that they will get a job to pay for college expenses (55.1 percent versus 45.2 percent),” according to the report. They also expect that there is some or a very good chance that they will work full-time while attending college (36.7 percent versus 24.7 percent).

“With less time on campus working at a job,” said Pryor, “they tend to be less likely to be there when student organizations meet or when certain lectures take place.”

To account for that problem, Pryor said that campus administrators may want to review what events are offered at what times. “Do these things always have to be at night?” is one question they might consider, he said.

Saenz added that it would be a good idea for admissions counselors to advise such students on ways to get jobs on a university’s campus, as research assistants, or in other “engaging” positions.  

Saenz said that a compelling critique of the UCLA report on the subject of first-generation students is that it does not analyze data on two-year institutions, where many of these students end up enrolling. Until 2000, the report had included such measurements, but the data was based on 15 to 20 institutions, so it was difficult to generalize, he said.

The Cooperative Institutional Research Program expects to release a detailed report on first-generation students in the fall.

Other highlights from the 2005 “American Freshman” report include:

  • Two out of three (66.3 percent) entering freshmen believe it is essential or important “to help others who are in difficulty,” the highest this figure has been in the past 25 years, according to researchers.
  • The survey revealed an all-time high in the percentage of students who believe there is a good or some chance that they will continue to volunteer in college, at 67.3 percent.
  • In the year after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, 45.0 percent of American freshmen supported increased military spending; 34.2 percent express the same opinion in 2005.
  • The percentage of entering college students who report that they frequently or occasionally drank beer as high school seniors dropped to an all-time low in 2005, declining 2.1 percentage points to 43.4 percent.
  • Men are more likely than women to report that they are attending college to be able to make more money (73.5 percent versus 69.0 percent for women). Female students’ top reasons include “to learn more about things that interest me” (81.4 percent), followed by getting training for a specific career (73.1 percent).


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