The Many Faces of First-Generation Students

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Nearly one-third of post-secondary students enrolled in two- and four-year colleges in the U.S. are referred to as first-generation or “first-gen”, meaning their parent(s) or guardian(s) did not complete a four-year college degree. Of course, this is the formal definition, used to guide research and bring some tangibility to such a widespread and multidimensional title. With that said, a flexible and inclusive approach to categorization is most effective when attempting to identify the diverse experiences and needs present within today’s first-gen student population.

Numerous publications have indicated that, on average, first-generation students are not only more likely to delay college entry, but also less likely to graduate. However, the integration of support services and programs to assist students before and throughout their post-secondary careers, has proven to be an effective approach to bridging gaps in enrollment and completion rates. Earlier this year, the Pell institute released a report, exploring higher education equity in the U.S. The report revealed that:

  • Participation in pre-college programs doubled the odds for enrollment in four-year college among prospective low-income and first-generation students.
  • Additionally, those students registered with the Student Support Services offered at their respective institutions, demonstrated a significant increase in retention and graduation rates when compared with national averages.

Of course, access to financial assistance plays a large role in a student’s ability to enroll in post-secondary education, and see their program through to completion.  However, there are also social, cultural, and academic determinants that factor into a student’s overall success, each of which demands acknowledgement through support services provided.

Many post-secondary institutions offer mentorship programs, connecting first-generation freshmen students with upperclassmen who can provide academic and social support. However, mentee-mentor pairings should consider the complex and often overlapping dynamics involved with each student’s first-gen identity, as truly meaningful connections can be fostered through shared experiences and challenges. The initial identification of first-generation students is certainly valuable as a starting point in pinpointing collective needs. However, it is crucial that post-secondary institutions make the effort to look beyond the first-gen title, toward the individual student, forging a path through the unknown. There is an infinite number of statements a first-generation student may identify with, along with the associated challenges they each present, including:

“I am a woman”

“I am an immigrant or a child of immigrants”

“I have a disability”

“I am a mature student”

“I am from a low-income family”

Of course, each of these statements opens doors to campus resources and support specific to the needs of the students expressing them, but their weight as overlapping components within an individual’s identity demands contemplation. How might these additional characteristics and circumstances impact the experience and success of a first-gen student in higher education? How can post-secondary institutions address these unique and diverse contexts through programs and services offered in support of first-generation students?

Source Referenced:
The Pell Institute. (2016). Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2016 historical trend report. Retrieved from

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