Academic Advising Resources


Resources for Advising First-Generation Students 

Advising First-Generation Students
Authored By: Angela Renee Sickles

First-generation students, with their unique needs and expectations, make up a growing population of students on today's campuses.The National Center for Education Statistics, as quoted by Swail, found that almost 40% of those enrolled at our institutions were first generation college students (Swail, p. B16). Often these students have little family support or guidance, and, in some cases, their attendance is resented by those closest to them. Riehl (1994, p.16) found that 'First-generation college students do not have the benefit of parental experience to guide them, either in preparing for college or in helping them understand what will be expected of them after they enroll.'For the support needed to succeed in college, many first generation college students turn to their academic advisors, not just for academic advice, but for the guidance considered necessary to navigate day-to-day campus life.

First generation students are defined as students not having a parent who graduated from college with a baccalaureate degree (Thomas et al., 1998). For these students, attending college may be their only chance to 'make it out' or to 'break the cycle.' Consequently, they feel the pressure to succeed but do not know the resources that can help them do so. Riehl (1994, p.16) maintains that it is the institution's responsibility to understand and address the needs of first-generation college students through orientation and advisement programs.

Many first-generation students seek to build a trusting relationship with their advisors, a relationship that is based on their advisor's understanding of their background.The successful advisor becomes familiar with these students' backgrounds and family lives.Was the student raised in a single parent home? Is the student from a 'blended family'? How many siblings are in the home and what is the student's 'birth order' within the family? Is the student from a rural or urban area? What types of jobs are held by the student's parent(s)? While growing up, did the student frequently move due to military relocation, job changes, or economic necessity?Is the student's college attendance invoking feelings of guilt for financial strain on the family? The answers to these questions can be especially important in advising a first-generation student. Pardon (1992, p. 73) has indicated that 'Parents and siblings can frequently be nonsupportive and even obstructionist.' If a student feels guilty about attending college or is receiving pressure from the family to come home, the advisor must be willing, and able, to address the issues behind the guilt and offer helpful suggests.

Advisors must have a comprehensive knowledge of the campus resources that could help these students including programs geared for first-generation students. This information would include any scholarships or programs offered to first-generation students, as well as the standard resources available to them by virtue of just being students.Advisors should have the contact information ofthe person who knows the procedures and paperwork needed to apply for these campus programs.

Many campuses provide programs for first-generation students through TRIO, a federally funded government program established by the 1965 Higher Education Act. TRIO has grown to include six outreach programs that can help first-generation students persist and succeed in obtaining baccalaureate degrees. The three most prominent programs today are Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Services.

  • Upward Bound allows high school students to obtain college credit, either through or after school day, on Saturdays or in summer classes with a nearby participating college or university. These classes focus on mainstream academics such as math, science, language arts, and foreign languages. Upward Bound often provides mentoring, tutoring, and other supporting services to the participants.
  • Talent Search is a program that identifies individuals with backgrounds that make them 'at risk' for success. Once a student is identified, the program offers assistance in understanding college 'ins and outs' including providing counseling for academic, career and financial issues. Talent Search can identify and work with students in middle school age to keep them on the right track headed for college.
  • Student Support Services is a program targets individuals who are first-generation, are from low income families,or have disabilities. SSS helps these students obtain admission to college and works with them through graduation from the institution. This program often offers mentoring, career counseling, and can help students at two-year colleges transfer to a four-year school.

Not all first-generation students have TRIO sponsored services available to them. Therefore it is imperative that academic advisors be prepared to support and guide first-generation students. Open communication is the key to the relationship. Being involved and interested lets students know that you care. Komives and Woodard (2001, p.352) indicate that 'one of the most powerful positive influences on students' persistence in college is individual attention.'  Individual attention is also a powerful factor in ones willingness to stay at the university.

Encourage first-generation students to use available resources to succeed. Help students establish not just academic goals but the personal goals needed to support their academic objectives.Hold your advisees accountable for reaching these goals. Questions from a first-generation student can take a lot of an advisor's time during the student's initial college terms. However, as the months progress, the first-generation student will depend on the advisor less. The relationship the advisor has built with these students will allow the student to feel more at home on the campus and be better equipped to deal with the stresses of being the first in their family to obtain a degree in higher education.

Angela Renee Sickles

Graduate Student

Kansas State University


Balz, Frank J., & Esten, Melanie R. (1998).Fulfilling Private Dreams, Serving Public Priorities: An Analysis of TRIO Student's Success at Independent Colleges and Universities. The Journal of Negro Education , Vol. 67, pp. 333-345. (November 10, 2003) Challenges of a first-generation student: Settling in at college a difficult adjustment.

Evans, Billy.   Identifying First Generation College Students

Komives, Susan R., Woodard, Dubley B., & et al. (2001). Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Pardron, Eduardo J. (1992). The Challenge of First- Generation College Students: A Miami-Dade Perspective. In L. Steven Zwerling & Howard B. London (Eds.), First-Generation Students: Confronting the Cultural Issues (pp71-81). San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Riehl, Richard J. (1994). The Academic Preparation, Aspirations, and First-year Performance of First Generation Students. College and University, Vol.70, pp.14-220.

Swail, Watson S. (January 23, 2004). Legislation to Improve Graduation Rates Could Have the Opposite Effect. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 50, Issue 20, p. B16.

Thomas, Earl Preston., Farrow, Earl Vann., & Martinez,   Juan. (1998). A TRIO Program's Impact on Participants Graduation Rates: The Rutgers University Student Support Services Program and Its Network of Services. The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 67, pp. 389-403.

Warburton, Edward C., Burgian, Rosio., &Nunez, Anne-Marie. (2001).   Bridging the Gap: Academic Preparation and post Secondary Success of First-Generation Students. Education Statistics Quarterly Vol. 3, pp. 73-77.

Cite this using APA style as:

Sickles, A.R. (2004). Advising first-generation students. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

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