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Faculty Voices on Promoting First-Generation College Student Academic Success

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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First generation students, whose parents do not hold four-year degrees, comprise a significant and growing population in higher education. Yet they are at higher risk of dropping out of college. This often invisible group has unique concerns that deserve more focused attention to help them succeed academically. There are strategies that professors and college staff can take to increase the likelihood that these undergraduates will achieve their academic goals. In a series of workshops, faculty and staff identified challenges these learners face and recommended steps educators can take to promote academic success.  


The posting below looks at ways for faculty to support first-generation college students with common issues such as limited academic skills, social isolation, and financial burdens.  It is by Miriam Rosalyn Diamond, Center for Excellence in Teaching, Simmons College, Amy Ballin, Department of Education, Simmons College, and  Margaret Costello, Department of Nursing, Simmons College. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Miriam Rosalyn Diamond, Simmons College, 300 The Fenway, Room P113A, Boston, MA  02115, ,  617-521-2038. 



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Faculty Voices on Promoting First-Generation College Student Academic Success



First generation college students (FGS) constitute an increasingly significant proportion of college students (Petty, 2017). Commonly defined as those for whom “neither one of their parents or guardians possess a four-year degree” (Davis, 2010, p.2), members of this population have unique experiences and needs that contribute to lower graduation rates (D’Amico & Dika, 2013). FGS tend to take and complete fewer courses, get lower grades, require greater remedial support, and more frequently withdraw from or repeat courses than their peers. FGS drop out of college at higher rates during their first year and are less likely to complete a degree (Chen, 2005; Darling & Smith, 2007). Often students of color, low-income, and frequently from immigrant families, these students may face the additional challenge of navigating cultural differences between school and home (Davis, 2010; Darling & Smith, 2007). 

In order to reverse current trends, it is important that college personnel become familiar with conditions that can impede and facilitate first generation college student retention and success. In particular, faculty can be a key resource for first generation students.  Professors can help students navigate the college experience and provide valuable support (Trevino & DeFreitas, 2014). Their perception of and interaction with members of this population can be highly influential factors in students’ educational achievement.

How do faculty perceive of FGS? In what ways do they feel they can support this population?

This paper highlights strategies brainstormed by faculty at several institutions nationally to support first generation college student success.

Faculty-Generated Ideas to Overcome Barriers

Over the course of a year (2016 – 2017), four workshops on fostering first generation success were offered at conferences and on campuses in diverse regions of the United States. These sessions (facilitated by a team consisting of two professors representing the fields of Education and Nursing, as well as a faculty developer) were attended by a total of 85 participants. As part of these sessions, attendees shared their perspectives regarding hurdles FGS face in college. A number of these participants, themselves first in their families to attend college, shared their own experiences. Others noted what they had observed from their years of teaching and working with this group.  Participants consistently agreed that FGS faced unique obstacles, and that faculty could support this population of students in achieving academic success. Common difficulties primarily fell into academic, social and financial domains. The groups brainstormed ways they and their peers could address these concerns.  

Academic Obstacles:

Academic issues identified by participants were students’ frequent lack of familiarity with course performance expectations as well as academic terminology (e.g. syllabus, plagiarism, literature review, annotation).  Faculty mentioned that FGS frequently had deficient educational preparation (particularly in areas such as writing and math) and insufficient study skills. They may be reluctant or not know how and when to ask for assistance. They indicated that these students might experience isolation in the classroom and fall prey to what is commonly called the ‘imposter syndrome’ -  the feeling that they don’t actually belong in college (Barry, Hudley, Kelly & Cho, 2009). Workshop participants also mentioned their own limitations in grasping students’ situations and acting accordingly.

Social and Personal Obstacles:

FGS frequently commute to school from their homes, due to financial constraints and family obligations. Professors indicated that this may lead to an increased sense of loneliness on campuses that primarily serve residential populations.  

Personal challenges for FGS may include a lack of family understanding of and support for their educational endeavors.  As a result, these students can feel torn between tending to family matters and devoting time to their academics to achieve success. Attendees at these workshops advocated for awareness that students may harbor guilt over feeling disloyal to their families by spending time and energy on their studies. 

Faculty also indicated concerns that FGS may lack social capital, or access to people who can support their success.  For instance, more of their classmates may have easier access to private tutors, parents who can proofread papers, and/or psychologists to offer emotional guidance and scholastic remedial direction when needed.

Financial Obstacles:

Financial concerns can have a strong impact on FGS’s ability to participate fully in classroom activities.   First generation students often work to pay for their school and living expenses. The combination of working and commuting to college leaves less time for study and other activities such as sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition.   Participants noted that these students’ time constraints may also impact their ability to participate in group projects outside of the classroom.  Academic resources (books, travel to field trips, technological devices) and activities outside the classroom often carry a cost that can unintentionally marginalize these learners.  Students may feel stress as they face unexpected expenses related to attending college and navigate the financial assistance processes.

Faculty Recommendations

Workshop attendees generated ideas of specific actions faculty can take to help this student population succeed academically.  They include:

●      Creating a supportive learning environment:

o    Identify which students are FGS. Welcome students to notify faculty of their status so  professors have a context for understanding these learners.

o    Emphasize class introductions so all students can meet one another.

o    If professors were themselves FGS, indicate their status, either verbally or by wearing “I am a first gen” buttons. This allows them to serve as role models and decreases stigmatization.

o    Make office hours and availability clear, setting up expectations that students will make use of them.

o    Facilitate in-class social connections between learners e.g. holding small group discussions and (in-class) assignments.

o    Allow time before class for informal interactions with and between students.

o    Help FGS find each other in the classroom.


●      Fostering academic success

o    Emphasize what students need for success in the course (e.g. specific study skills).

o    Provide a glossary of class and college terminology (e.g. syllabus, annotated bibliography, Dean’s List).

o    Offer focused, clear study guides.

o    Establish peer monitoring/mentoring programs (including students from previous terms).

o    Use examples in class that are relatable to FGS.

o    Let students redo and resubmit drafts and projects.

o    Incorporate multiple means for students to demonstrate content and skill mastery (e.g, papers, graphic art, videos, games).

o    Make students aware of resources, including tutoring, writing support, personal counseling and health care - and provide a sheet or website with information.

o    Encourage students to ask for clarification and assistance in emails and office hours.

o    Allow time in class for students to work on paired and small group assignments.


●      Being sensitive to student perspectives and conditions

o    Refrain from asking individual students to speak for their entire group.

o    Understand that not all students have access to technology (e.g, smart phone, laptop).

o    When discussing disenfranchised groups (e.g. homeless individuals), be aware and sensitive to the fact that FGS in their class may be part of these groups.

o    Keep class expenses (books, materials, trips) low or find alternate sources (e.g, books on reserve in the library, Open Educational Resources, travel subsidies).

o    Be mindful of student time pressures due to work, commuting and family obligations.

o    Hold flexible and online office hours. 

Summary of Brainstorming Sessions. When asked to consider challenges facing FGS, faculty created fairly extensive lists of barriers and steps professors (and academic staff) can take to support these learners. The ideas fell into three main categories; creating a supportive learning environment; fostering academic success; and being sensitive to student perspectives. Faculty concluded that they can increase awareness of this population by announcing to the whole class that they welcome FGS and by self identifying when applicable. They can make special efforts to connect with these learners through accessible office hours and locations, and providing incentives for students to pay visits. Professors can  provide information about campus offices that offer remedial and personal support. And when planning assignments, they can be mindful of students’ time and financial constraints.  Taking such steps can improve success rates for this population. Many of these suggestions can be easily implemented and yet may have a substantial impact. 


At these workshops, college professors demonstrated awareness that they could play key roles in supporting first-generation college students with common issues such as limited academic skills, social isolation, and financial burdens. Faculty at these brainstorming sessions recognized that they have the capacity and responsibility to take special measures in helping this population achieve their dreams.  

The myth of education as an equalizer is questioned when not all students have equivalent access to the supports needed to succeed. First generation college students, a growing yet often invisible population, must overcome a myriad of obstacles as they pursue their diplomas.  With increased awareness and guidance, faculty can increase the support they offer these learners. By doing so, they can elevate the possibility that FGS will complete college and consequently have greater opportunities for professional success. 


Barry, L., Hudley, C., Kelly, M., & Cho, S. (2009). Differences in Self-Reported Disclosure of College Experiences by First-Generation College Student Status. Adolescence, 44(173), 55-68.

Chen, X., & Carroll, C. D. (2005). First-Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts. Postsecondary Education Descriptive Analysis Report. NCES 2005-171. National Center for Education Statistics. 2005-171.

D'Amico, M. M., & Dika, S. L. (2013). Using Data Known at the Time of Admission to Predict First-Generation College Student Success. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 15(2), 173-192.

Darling, R.A. & Smith, M.S. (2007). First-Generation College Students: First Year Challenges. Academic Advising: New Insights for Teaching and Learning in the First Year. NACADA Monograph Series, (14), 203-211.

Davis, J. (2010). The First-Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus Practice and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Petty, T. (2014). Motivating First-Generation Students to Academic Success and College Completion. College Student Journal, 48(2), 257-264.

Trevino, N. N., & DeFreitas, S. C. (2014). The Relationship between Intrinsic Motivation and Academic Achievement for First Generation Latino College Students. Social Psychology of Education, 17(2), 293-306.