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Embracing the First-Generation Student

The struggle to keep the first in the family to attend college in college


During the summer of 2016, when Kimberly Quiros-Elias left home to become the first person in her family to seek out a college degree, she brought some baggage with her. A former foster child who lost her mother at 14 and was abandoned by her father at 15, Quiros-Elias entered her first semester determined to be a math or chemistry major. But she had too few people around to offer support or direction. And with no knowledge of how to navigate course requirements, she was in no shape to declare a major two years later.

“After all that, an academic adviser in the physical sciences department told me to just change majors and choose another school,” says Quiros-Elias, now a junior business economics major at the University of California at Irvine. “I found the experience completely overwhelming.”

Multiply her story (or a similar version of it) several million times and you’ll not only get an idea of the size of the first-generation undergraduate student population nationwide, but the scope of the challenge U.S. colleges and universities face as they work to accommodate them.

About one in three college students in the United States are the first in their families to go to college

About one in three college students in the United States are the first in their families to go to college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). That’s 6 million–plus young people each year who need more than a welcome mat and a course catalog to make them feel comfortable on campus.

As higher-ed institutions work harder to keep and graduate more students, the growing numbers of first-generation college enrollees offer them an opportunity. Colleges that find ways to keep them for the long haul will live up to their institutional goals and missions more often — not to mention fill the seats of their classrooms.

While most college leaders acknowledge the need to help first-generation students succeed, progress is halting, and best practices remain elusive.

But such students also represent a daunting test. While most college leaders acknowledge the need to help first-generation students succeed, progress is halting, and best practices remain elusive.

To bridge the chasms between student types, experts recommend that colleges offer first-generation students more support. A university trends report released last year by Sodexo, a global leader providing food and facilities management services on university campuses, urged colleges to provide specific services, including mentoring, while creating training sessions for faculty on the challenges they’ll face educating first-generation students.

Such wide-ranging measures are necessary to help first-gen students overcome a raft of factors that often keep them from reaching their college potential.

Outcomes for them remain poor, relative to students whose households are familiar with the college experience.

A lot of that has to do with the challenging circumstances many first-generation students bring with them to campus.


More first-generation students are likely to attend classes part time, are likely to be older than the general student population, and have more children, according to NCES data. They are also more likely to be much less well off: The median family income for first-generation freshmen at two- and four-year institutions was $37,565, compared with $99,635 for non-first-generation freshmen. About half of first-generation students get by on low incomes.

First-generation students also aren’t as prepared for college as their non-first-generation peers, which puts them at a higher risk of failing or dropping out of college.

Far fewer first-generation students attending four-year schools earn degrees than those students whose families have had college experiences — 27 percent of first-generation students graduate with a bachelor’s within four years, as compared with 42 percent of those with parents who attended college, according to a study from the Higher Education Research Institute, an ongoing longitudinal study of American colleges and universities. The outlook for male first-generation students is even worse. They graduate at a rate several percentage points lower than those for women.

The overall gap persists when the window for graduation is opened to six years, with only 54 percent of first-in-their-family students at public institutions earning bachelor’s degrees, as opposed to 68 percent of people with college-educated parents. That gulf between student types is mirrored at Catholic colleges, though all types of schools (including private universities and other religious colleges) show gaps of 10 percentage points or more.

Those effects are magnified at two-year colleges. Nearly half of first-generation students attend two-year institutions, even though those who started at four-year schools were more than seven times more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, according to NCES.


To help those students vault so many barriers, colleges should work to develop more networking opportunities that build strong bonds between first-generation students and campuses, as well as make information on succeeding at college more available, the Sodexo report recommends.

Some universities have heeded the call. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where 19 percent of incoming freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, a website dedicated to those students offers information on academic coaching, financial aid, and a variety of other services.

At the University of California at Irvine, where half of the total population (28,000) is made up of first-generation students, the goal has been to improve their quality of life by making them feel that they can handle a multifaceted college experience.

“Navigating a large campus can be really tough. Parents really can’t help them understand, and their high-school counselors, who they might have once relied upon, aren’t readily accessible,” says Kevin Huie, director of the Student Success Initiatives office at Irvine.

Many students have a hard time coping on their own. “It becomes hard for them when they see other students here who don’t have to deal with all that they have to deal with,” Huie adds. The university has expanded counseling services to help the 40 percent or more first-generation students deal who suffer from anxiety or depression.

The university maintains what Huie calls “a holistic approach” to help them. It includes everything from providing student and faculty mentors for incoming first-generation students, earmarked dorm rooms, probation intervention for those who are struggling, and extra help in several courses, including biology.

“Our success at retaining them is usually five percent better or more than at other schools we compare ourselves with,” including other California public universities, says Huie.

One program—called Foster Youth Resilience in Education, or FYRE—is geared toward former foster-care youths who are first-generation students. It has worked wonders for her and several of her friends, adds Quiros-Elias. A program coordinator from that program has provided her with support, increasing her confidence.

“She’s offered me a lot of help during our regular meetings. We talk about my quarterly academic goals, personal goals, personal issues, and opportunities I might have,” she says. “Her constant support is the reason why I’m doing so well.”

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