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Ila Schauer, First Generation College Student Interest Group Chair

Embarking on a journey into the unknown... Boldly going where no relative has gone before... Blazing new trails. These are brave and exciting statements, but to any student who is first in the family to have the experience, it is an intimidating venture. First Generation College Students (First Gens) often receive mixed messages from their families—make us proud/don’t leave us. These students are “breaking,” not “keeping” the family tradition. Without guidance, First Gens often get lost in the maze of college life.

An academic advisor who seeks more information about this student population finds several contradictions. First, and foremost, there is no clear definition of the term ‘First Generation College Student.’ A commonly held definition for First Gen is that these students are the first in their immediate family to attend college—period. However, a literature review shows that this is not a universally held notion. The least restrictive definition is that of the federally funded TRIO program: neither of the student’s parents (guardians) earned a four-year college degree. The most restrictive definition is that used by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES): the student is the first in the family to pursue education beyond high school.

The second problem an advisor faces is how to identify this student population. If an advisor cannot obtain information from FAFSA forms, then First Gens must self-identify. Most current research uses the self-select method and, of course, most grant money is distributed to students through a volunteer process. A third hurdle is clarification of issues. Which concerns are specific to First Gens, and which are generally held by other students? Research continually suggests that First Generation College Students are at a definite disadvantage when compared to students from a family with previous college experience. In fact, Bolante (2002) points to the fact that First Gens are twice as likely to leave college before the 2nd year. Yet quantitative studies that indicate which interventions actually help are almost non-existent beyond those of TRIO sponsored programs.

D’Amico (1998) indicates that First Generation students are more likely to be: older than the typical 18 year old freshman, from lower income families, married (many with dependants), and ethnic minorities. Warburton, et al. (2001) found that First Gens are more likely to attend part-time, and to work full-time while in college. They are less likely to enroll in 4-year universities (and are even less likely to enroll in research universities), less likely to have taken college prep courses or advanced placement courses in high school, and less likely to have taken college entrance exams. Additionally, the Warburton study found that those who have taken college entrance exams generally score lower than those students whose parents have a college education. Bui (2002) points out that it is more likely that English is not the first language spoken in First Gen homes and Warburton finds that First Gens tend to have lower first year GPAs and take at least one remedial course.

Another concern for First Gens is ‘debt load’ (Somers, Woodhouse, & Cofer, 2004). Many First Gens come from lower income families and thus are more likely to end up accumulating large debt before they complete their program of study. One reason for this lack of financial support is their high school background and low college entrance scores often do not qualify them for scholarships. Warburton, et. al (2001) brought an interesting finding to the discussion when they found that when First Gen students complete a high school program with equally high level of rigor, they succeed at the same rate as their peers whose parents earned degrees. Indeed, if this is the case, then it would appear that more needs to be done to educate potential students, their parents, and high school counselors regarding how high school course choice affects college success. Research in this area is often limited to one campus or student population, and definitions appear to be conflicting. What is needed is research which covers a cross-section of the US including many types of institutions. It would seem that NACADA members may be in the best position to champion this research across campuses. As such, the First Generation College Student Advising Interest Group challenges you to look at these issues on your campus and welcomes discussion of possible research topics on our electronic list.

While studying First Gens can be discouraging, working with them is not. Typically these students blossom under the care and attention of advisors, mentors and peer counselors. Effective academic advising of First Gens is of utmost importance as are programs that assist students to achieve more social input, educate parents, and provide earlier interventions. We must foster students’ sense of belonging on campus and facilitate healthy relationships with faculty, staff, and other students, both in and out of the classroom. Advising, tutoring, and mentoring are necessary to help these students succeed. More research must be done to determine which interventions are successful in retaining First Gens to the second year.

Ila Schauer
Prairie View A&M University


Bolante, Ronna (2002). First generation students: Higher education is foreign territory for students whose parents never attended college, Malamalama, The magazine of the University of Hawaii System, Retrieved on September 22, 2004, from www.hawaii.edu/malamalama/2002/07/FirstGen.html

Bui, Khanh Van T. (March, 2002). First-generation college students at a four-year university: Background characteristics, reasons for pursuing higher education, and first-year experiences-Statistical Data Included. College Student Journal. Retrieved September 21, 2004, from www.findarticles.com/p/ articles/mi_m0FCR/is_1_36/si

D’Amico, Aurora (June 1998) Statistical Analysis Report: First- Generation Students: Undergraduates Whose Parents Never Enrolled in Postsecondary Education), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Retrieved November 3, 2004 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/web/98082.asp

Somers, Patricia, Woodhouse, Shawn, & Cofer, Jim (2004). Pushing the boulder uphill: The persistence of first-generation college students, NASPA Journal, Vol.41, no.3, Spring 2004.

Warburton, E.C., Bugarin, R., and Nuñez, A.-M. (2001). Bridging the gap: Academic preparation and postsecondary success of first-generation students. Educational Statistics Quarterly, 3(3). Retrieved October 27, 2004 from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/ quarterly/vol_3/3_3/q4-2.asp

Cite this article using APA style as: Schauer, I. (2005, February). Issues facing first generation college students. Academic Advising Today, 28(1). [insert url here]


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