Trends for the First in the Family

Report offers portrait of first-generation college students, including desire to achieve financial security and lost ground for African Americans.
June 7, 2007

Those who are the first in their families to go to college are more likely than other students to be poor, Latino, foreign-born, from rural areas, and to have less than optimal high school preparation or test scores.

That general picture remains accurate, but a new report provides additional context as well as comparisons over time. "First in My Family: A Profile of First-Generation College Students at Four-Year Institutions Since 1971" provides a glimpse into the shifting attitudes and priorities of those on the educational frontier, as well as how they compare with their peers from families with a history of postgraduate education.

The data come from the well-known Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey, administered yearly and nationally by the University of California at Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute.

The most macro-level trend is on the level of demographics: first-generation students are a declining proportion of full-time freshmen, mostly because more and more Americans have been going to college over the past several decades. Moreover, as the chart below shows, the gap in the proportion of first-in-the-family freshmen at private versus public institutions narrowed from 1971 to 2005.

First-Generation College Students Among Entering First-Time, Full-Time Freshmen

  Public Private Total
1971 42.2% 30.4% 38.5%
2005 17.5% 12.8% 15.9%

Still, the report suggests, private institutions do a better job retaining first-generation students, partly because of the reason such students choose to go to those colleges: they are smaller and tend to offer more financial aid. But first-generation students at private colleges also tend to come from families with higher incomes than those at their public counterparts; on average, those at private colleges earn better grades and have a higher likelihood of coming from private high schools.

Within the group of first-generation students, the ethnic and racial composition has also been changing over the years. While Hispanics remain the largest percentage of students coming from families with no postsecondary educational background, African Americans have lost the most ground since 1975: The proportion of African-American first-generation students has declined faster than the corresponding decrease among adults in that racial group without a college education would predict.

"In other words, it is very probable that first-generation African-American students are having more difficulty gaining access to four-year institutions, a supposition which can also be made for Hispanic first-generation students," the authors wrote.

Racial/Ethnic Breakdown of First-Generation Students Over Time

Population (25 and up) with no college education 1975 2005 % change
All 73.7% 47.0% -36.3%
White 72.8% 42.8% -41.2%
African American 84.5% 55.7% -34.1%
Hispanic 85.0% 69.1% -18.7%
First-generation college students      
All 31.2% 15.9% -49.0%
White 28.9% 12.9% -55.4%
African American 51.5% 20.4% -60.3%
Hispanic 57.6% 35.8% -37.8%

There was also a noticeable change in students' given reasons for going to college, possibly as a result of financial anxieties. All students are more likely now than 30 years ago to say that making money and finding a good job are important reasons for going to college, but for first-generation students, that has become even more pronounced:

Students Saying It Was 'Very Important' to Go to College 'to Make More Money'

  First-Generation Non-First-Generation
1976 53.2% 47.7%
2005 76.4% 69.8%

First-generation students are also more likely than others to have gone to college because of their parents' influence -- more than double the percentage in 1971. This contradicts previous perceptions that some parents who have not attended college tend to pass their ambivalence about higher education down to their children. High school guidance counselors were also more likely to be sources of encouragement.

There were plenty of other notable findings in the report, including:

  • First-generation students were about twice as likely (22.7 percent) to be concerned about financing college than their peers -- although that has changed little since 1972.
  • Gaps between first-generation and other students persist in self-confidence and college preparation. The latter spend more time studying in high school and have higher average grades; also, first-generation students report less self-confidence and lower self-ratings of math and writing ability as well as leadership ability.
  • First-generation students are more likely to attend college close to home (within 50 miles). They considered the proximity to be "a very important reason for choosing their institution," according to the report.

The report's executive summary is available online. It was co-sponsored by the Foundation for Independent Higher Education and comes on the heels of the most recent release from the UCLA institute, which chronicled 40 years of the CIRP survey's findings.


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