The term “first generation college student” will be thrown around a lot by teachers and policy makers. However, what does the word mean?
Does a first-generation college student come from a home where neither parent earned a college diploma? Imagine if at least one parent graduated college? What if their parents attended college but didn’t graduate? Does it matter whether it’s a biological parent who attended college or any other adult living on their property?
A new study from the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, presented last week at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, explores whether distinct definitions of “first generation” change (a) how many such students there are and (b) our understanding of how they fare in higher education.
The answer to the latter question: not really. Regardless of how they are defined, first-generation pupils enroll and graduate at lower rates compared to other students. But the definition has a massive impact on the size of the populace of pupils, the investigators discovered.
“No one has defined what they mean by the first generation,” said Robert Toutkoushian, a professor at Georgia and the lead writer of the newspaper”Talking’Bout My Generation: Discovering First-Generation Pupils in Higher Education Research.”
The researchers found the 7,300 students they analyzed from a 2002 longitudinal study, the number of pupils described as “first generation” could vary from as small as 22 percent to as large as 77 percent, he said. So the broader the definition of “first generation,” for example including students with a single parent that has the collegiate experience, the bigger the population.
The definitional question issues since the mounting pressure to boost the speed of college success among U.S. adults is complicated by the fact that first-generation students who make up growing numbers of their target population are not as likely to pursue bachelor’s levels.
According to the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas in Austin, 47.2 percent of what it defines as first-generation pupils made transferring into a four-year school or college their primary goal compared to 56.1% of non-first-generation students. Approximately 67% of first-generation students said their main goal was to obtain an associate degree, compared to 60.3% of non-first-generation pupils. First-generation pupils also showed greater interest in completing a certificate program when compared with non-first-generation pupils, 33.6 percent to 27.7 percent. The center defines students with a minimum of one parent that has attended college since non-first-generation.
But Evelyn Waiwaiole, manager of CCCSE, said it’s hard to unpack those figures because we don’t have a better comprehension of who first-generation pupils are.
“If we need more first-generation pupils to have the goal of moving to a four-year, we must comprehend the dynamics behind being generation,” she explained. “It’s not just because you’re likely first creation it is likely other variables involved, and if we’re going to put other policies and practices in place, we need to get a richer understanding.”
For example, those first-generation pupils might want to stay closer to home and might not live near a four-year school, which might play a role in the kind of high education they pursue, she explained.
And also the idea of a first-generation pupil today differs from what it had been 50 years ago, Waiwaiole stated “Imagine if your brother or sister moved to college?”
They examined the various education levels of both parents and how it changed whether a student intended to take the SAT or ACT in 10th grade, applied to school, or enrolled at college.
They found, for example, a pupil’s first interest in attending faculty varied greatly based on whether neither parent attended college versus everyone else who had a minimum of one parent attending some degree of college. Students with a minimum of one parent attending faculty had a very similar level of interest as those with both parents with faculty experience, Toutkoushian said.
But when it came to enrolling in college, students with only one parent in faculty were at a disadvantage relative to those with two parents that had some college background, he explained.
“No matter how we define it, first-generation pupils are at a disadvantage compared to non-first-generation pupils,” Toutkoushian said.
Toutkoushian admits that placing first-generation pupils does not answer lots of the questions he has posed, like the effect of a sibling or relative attending faculty on a first-generation pupil, or if a minimum of one parent has a graduate-level instruction.
“Probably the greatest thing we can do is work within schools to provide kids with information about college choices premature,” Toutkoushian said, adding that there’s been research which has shown about half of students decide they plan to attend college before the sixth grade. “And interventions must happen early, so we’re not waiting until high school and we’re getting them in middle school”
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