The posting below looks at the differences between first and non-first generation higher education students. It is from Chapter I, Who Are First-Generation Students?, in the book, First-Generation College Students: Understanding and Improving the Experience from Recruitment to Commencement, by Lee Ward, Michael J. Siegel and Zebulun Davenport. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. [www.josseybass.com] One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Basic Differences Between First-Generation and Non-First-Generation Students
David Onestak, director of counseling and student development at James Madison University, likens a first-generation student to an athlete always playing an away game. For a minor-league baseball player on a long road trip, the unfamiliar bed, lack of home cooking, unusual daily routine, absence of local supporters, and unfamiliar ballpark surroundings can be a source of stress and an impediment to success on the field. Imagine if that road trip lasted for nine months. After a while the unfamiliar may become recognizable, but it never feels like home. First-generation students, especially those in their first year of college, may feel like they are on a road trip that never stops; that every day is full of potential barriers to success that are the price of being the first in their family to attend college. If that price feels too steep, or if there is no one in a student's family who can assure him or her that the eventual payoff is much greater than the price, the idea of even being in college may be overwhelming.
In the course of making these early evaluations, first-generation students must grapple with a variety of tough questions about themselves, their reasons for attending college, and the challenges of their new environment:
- What will the entrance into the world of the educated require me to sacrifice with respect to family, friends, and identity?
- What can I potentially achieve that will make my parents happy?
- How will I find my way in this new environment, physically and socially?
- How, if I reside on campus, will I adjust to living among others whose educational, financial, and family backgrounds have prepared them better for that
- Will my parents' lack of education be an impediment to my fitting in here?
- What do I wear, what do I do when I'm not in class, and what will others expect me to be? Will others know by looking at me or talking to me that I am a
first-generation student? Should they or I care?
- Will I be able to talk to other students and to faculty? Will they reach out to me, or will I need to reach out to them?
- Who will be my role models, now that I am in this strange place?
Each of these questions signifies the vast uncertainty that faces many first-generation students as they embark on their college education. And each illustrates that first-generation students differ in a variety of ways from their traditional peers, both in their preparation for and vision of higher education and in their experience at college.
Precollege characteristics are useful in understanding individual students' and groups of students' readiness for the academic, social, and emotional demands of college. Examples of meaningful precollege characteristics include demographics (for example, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and family structure); the nature and quality of the student's high school education; and courses taken and grades achieved. First-generation students differ from their non-first-generation peers in regard to a variety of demographic variables, including being widely represented in disadvantaged racial, income, and gender groups, thus occupying \"intersecting sites of oppression\" (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005, p. 409). First-generation students are more likely to be minority students (Bui, 2002; Choy, 20001; Horn & Nunez, 2000; Terenzini et al., 1996); students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (Bui; Oldfield, 2007; Terenzini et al., 1996); and women with children (Nunez, Cuccaro-Alamin, & Carroll, 1998; Terenzini et al., 1996). Table 1.2, which has been adapted from many studies of first-generation students, compares students' reasons for pursuing higher education and their experiences during the first college year. A mark in the \"Similar\" column indicates where first-generation and non-first generation students were much alike in regard to their reasons and experiences, whereas a mark in the \"Different\" column indicates that reasons and experience were not alike.
Table 1.2 Comparison of First-Generation and Non-First-Generation Students
Areas of Interest (S) = Similar (D) = Different
* Reasons for Pursuing Higher Education
Friends were going to college. (S)
Parents expected me to go to college. (S)
High school teachers and counselors persuaded me to go to college. (S)
Wanted a college degree to achieve my career goals. (S)
Wanted the better income a college degree provides. (S)
Like to learn. (S)
Wanted to provide a better life for my own children. (S)
Wanted to gain independence. (S)
Wanted to acquire skills needed to function effectively in society. (S)
Wanted to get out of my parents' neighborhood. (S)
Did not want to work immediately after high school. (S)
* First Year Experiences
Felt less prepared for college than other students. (D)
Worried about financial aid. (D)
Feared failing in college. (D)
Knew less than other students about the social environment at the institution. (D)
Felt I had to put more time into studying than others did. (D)
Felt comfortable making decisions related to college on my own. (S)
Knew about the academic programs at my institution prior to enrolling. (S)
Made friends at my institution. (S)
Enjoyed being a student at my institution. (S)
Felt accepted at my institution. (S)
Source:Adapted from Bui, 2002; Choy, 2001; Horn & Nunez, 2000; Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005; Nunez, Cuccaro-Alamin, & Carroll, 1998; Oldfield, 2007;Terenzini et al., 1996.
In terms of the academic pipeline, it is well-established in the higher education literature that first-generation students are much less likely than their peers to enroll in a postsecondary institution; and it follows that they are also less likely to persist to graduation once they do enter college (Engle, Bermeo, & O'Brien, 2006; Engle & Tinto, 2008). Engle and Tinto point out that first-generation students are much more likely to earn a bachelor's degree if they enter postsecondary education at a four-year institution than if they enter at a two-year college, but that annually only about 25 percent of first-generation do so. Given that approximately three-fourths of all first-generation students enter higher education at two-year institutions-at which retention rates have traditionally been the poorest for many groups of students-these numbers are troubling. Although the two-year sector provides perhaps the best opportunity for first-generation students in terms of access and equity, the path to attaining a baccalaureate degree has greater challenges for students who enter two-year institutions and eventually go on to earn a bachelor's degree is five times higher for such students who are not economically disadvantaged, as many first-generation students are (Engle & Tinto). This latter point demonstrates that the influence on bachelor's degree attainment of where first-generation students start their college education-at a two-year or four-year institution-can be moderated by family income.
Across all demographic categories, first-generation students arrive at college campuses at risk academically. As a result of their high school experiences, they are less academically prepared than their traditional counterparts. Overall, when compared to non-first-generation students, first-generation students tend to have lower reading, math, and critical thinking skills (Inkelas, Daver, Vogt, & Leonard, 2007) and pursue a less rigorous high school curriculum, especially in the sciences and math (Choy, 2001); they are less likely to take SAT and ACT exams, and AP courses and exams; and they typically achieve a lower grade point average in high school (Brown & Burkhardt, 1999; Riehl, 1994). This lack of preparedness for college often is correlated with lower socioeconomic status and parental support, and it shapes the expectations of first-generation students.
First-generation students have lower educational aspirations than other college-bound students (Bui, 2002; McCarron & Inkelas, 2006; Miller, 2008; Terenzini et al., 1996). Even students who possess high levels of academic ability frequently select institutions that are less academically rigorous than their intellectual capabilities would suggest they can handle (Inkelas et al., 2007; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak and Terenzini, 2004; Warburton, Bugarin, & Nunez, 2001). In general, first-generation students simply do not imagine themselves reaching the same academic heights as other students, and when they are motivated to attend college it is often for more practical, short-term reasons than those motivating non-first-generation students (Prospero & Vohra-Gupta, 2007). For example, they believe that they have more at stake by attending college than do their traditional peers, who may take college attendance for granted; they are more attuned to potential financial gain from college; and they often see a college degree as the best way to help their family (Bui, 2002). These aspirations and motivations frequently are shaped by students' familial support system. For instance, first-generation students are more likely to be dissuaded from attending college by their parents, many of whom are more fearful than the parents of non-first-generation students about their children leaving home or entering a new culture (Schultz, 2004).
- Brown, H. E., &Burkhardt, R. L. (1999, May). Predicting student success: The relative impact of ethnicity, income and parental education. Paper presented at the 39th annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research, Seattle.
- Bui, K.V.T. (2002). First-generation college students at a four-year university: Background characteristics, reasons for pursuing higher education, and first-year experiences. College Students Journal, 36, 3-11.
- Choy, S. P. (2001). Students whose parents did not go to college: Postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment (NCES 2001-126). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/2001126.pdf
- Engle, J., Bermeo, A., & O'Brien, C. (2006). Straight from the source: What works for first-generation college students. Washington, DC: Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
- Engle, J., & Tinto, V. (2008). Moving beyond access: College success for low-income, first-generation students. Washington, DC: Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
- Horn, L., & Nunez, A.-M. (2000). Mapping the road to college: First-generation students' math track, planning strategies, and context of support (NCES 2000-153). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/2000153.pdf
- Inkelas, K. K., Daver, Z. E., Vogt, K. E., & Leonard, J. B. (2007). Living-learning programs and first-generation college students' academic and social transition to college. Research in Hgiher Education, 48, 403-434.
- Lohfink, M., & Paulsen, M. B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Developmpent, 46, 409-428.
- McCarron, G. P., & Inkelas, K. K. (2006). The gap between educational aspirations and attainment for first-generation college students and the role of parental involvement. Journal of College Student Development, 47, 534-549.
- Miller, M. (2008). The privileges of the parents. Change, 40(1), 6-7.
- Nunez, A.-M., Cuccaro-Alamin, S., & Carroll, C. D. (1998). First-generation students: Undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education (NCES 98-082). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/98082.pdf
- Oldfield, K. (2007). Humble and hopeful: Welcoming first-generation poor and working-class students to college. About Campus, 11(6), 2-12.
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- Riehl, R. J. (1994). The academic preparation, aspirations and first year performance of first-generation students. College and University, 70(1), 14-19.
- Schultz, P. F. (2004). Upon entering college: First semester experiences of first-generation, rural students from agricultural families. Rural Educator, 26(1), 48-51.
- Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P.M., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1996). First-generation college students: Characteristics, experiences and cognitive development. Research in Higher Education, 37, 1-22.
- Warburton, E. C., Bugarin, R., & Nunez, A.-M. (2001). Bridging the gap: Academic preparation and postsecondary success of first-generation students (NCES 2001-153). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/2001/201153.pdf