The federal government defines a first-generation student as “a person whose parents did not both complete a bachelor’s degree” or “in the case of any person who regularly resided with only one parent and received assistance from that -here, a person of whom only one of these parents has not obtained his baccalaureate.
We generally think of a first-generation student as one who doesn’t have an immediate family member to provide guidance in enrolling and navigating the muddy waters of a college experience. We can also assume that these students will be less prepared for the academic challenges of college.
However, after interviewing and interviewing qualified first-generation students, it is evident that students who fall into this general category come from very different backgrounds.
While talking with a first generation student, we learned that his grandparent had a Ph.D. and his parents both attended college or technical school and were professionals in their fields. This student had family counseling on choosing a college, obtaining financial aid, selecting a major and setting up a schedule and also received academic support at the House.
Another student we interviewed came from a very rural area; came from a low socio-economic background; had little support, financial or otherwise, from anyone in their household; and didn’t know anyone who had attended college, except for the teachers at his high school.
We would venture to say that these students do not need the same level of support when they enter college.
Why is this important?
The federal government, colleges and universities have been identifying first-generation students for more than six decades. First-generation college students benefit from federally funded student success and outreach programs. Many colleges and agencies have invested resources to ensure the success of first-generation students. There are national institutions dedicated to the success of first-generation students. However, after all this time, it seems that these students with very different backgrounds are still being put in the same big pot and seen as needing the same attention.
Better define the first generation
Based on student responses to our interviews and surveys, we have defined the following levels of student training. Level 0 students are not considered first generation students. Levels 1-4 are all first generation students, but have different backgrounds.
- Level 0: One or both parents have a college degree (not considered first generation).
- Level 1: Parents or guardians attended college (but did not complete).
- Level 2: Siblings have attended or completed college; the parents were not present.
- Level 3: Extended family (grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins) attended or completed college; parents or siblings did not.
- Level 4: No immediate or extended family members have attended or completed university.
Does level make a difference?
Based on the information we received from 76 students from several universities and colleges, we characterized them using the above levels. We ranked students at the lowest level they encountered. For example, if a student had both a parent who attended college and a sibling who attended or completed college, then they were classified as Level 1.
Of these 76 students, 58 students were considered first generation by the standard definition and 18 were not. Of the 58 first generation students, 33 were in level 1, 10 in level 2, nine in level 3 and only six in level 4.
We asked students what external and internal factors influenced them to go to college. We also followed the students for at least a year to determine if they persisted.
This study was carried out as part of an INCLUDES alliance funded by the National Science Foundation and therefore focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It should also be noted that all students in our study were enrolled in a two-week research experience prior to their first semester of college and were encouraged to continue to engage in the project throughout their time in college. .
We found that the external factors motivating students to attend college were similar, but that teachers, high school classes, friends, and extended family members played a more important role for first-generation students than for their non-first generation peers. Internal motivations for attending college were also similar, but the desire for a good income was lower for first-generation students (90%) than for their next-generation peers (100%). First-generation college students cited career aspirations as a motivating factor at a higher rate (86%) than their non-first-generation peers (78%). First-generation students also had fewer positive associations with college (71%) compared to their continuing-generation peers (77%).
Since all of the students surveyed or interviewed intended to major in STEM in college, we also asked about the factors, external and internal, that motivated them to enter a STEM major. First, we found that for almost every category we studied, some students had family members who majored or earned a STEM degree. Thirty-nine percent of non-first-generation students and Tier 1 students, respectively, had a family member who had majored in STEM, compared to 10 percent for Tier 2 students, 33 percent for level 3 students and 0 percent for level. 4 students.
High school teachers, STEM classes and clubs were the main reasons first-generation students entered STEM. For continuing-generation students, teachers and classrooms were also important, but parents were much more influential for these students (44%) than for their first-generation peers (24%). First-generation college students also had fewer positive associations with STEM (62%) compared to their non-first-generation peers (72%).
The students in our study entered college in the fall semesters of 2018 through 2021. For the 53 students enrolled in the years 2018 through 2020, we can report persistence in a STEM major through completion of 2020, based on their first-gen tiers. Persistence was 93% among first-generation Tier 1 students, 80% among Tier 2 students, 83% among Tier 3 students, and 75% among Tier 4 students. We will continue to track perseverance over the next four years for these students.
Although this is a small dataset and the percentages presented are descriptive statistics at this point, we believe the idea of first-gen levels merits further investigation.
What do we suggest?
At our institution, we decided to add a question to identify first-generation level on a widely used survey given to most students in first-year STEM classes. We also track the persistence of STEM majors and can determine from there if the level makes a difference to overall persistence and success.
Based on our initial research, it appears that first-generation Tier 1 students (parents attended college) seem to be able to keep pace with their non-first-generation peers. However, we believe that first-generation students in Tier 4, and possibly Tiers 2 and 3, are particularly vulnerable and may need more help. These students are not as numerous as first-generation students, and they are the ones who would benefit the most from targeted intervention, such as peer mentoring or special guidance in navigating administrative tasks, as well as financial counseling. . It’s not that other first-generation students, or even continuing-generation students, don’t need help, but maybe they don’t need it as much.