First-generation students encounter new experiences

First-generation students are defined as undergraduates whose parents do not have a bachelor’s degree or higher. First-generation students are an important demographic group in higher education. Students who are the first in their family to enroll in higher education have always been part of the student population. However, recently there is a lot of focus on these students for several reasons. The population of first-generation students is growing, schools and student organizations are working to improve graduation rates, and there is a need for a better-prepared workforce. The third National First-Generation College Celebration Day is Nov. 8, the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which helps make education more accessible for all US citizens.

First-generation students are not some over-looked minority group. They are a diverse demographic group, made up of people from diverse racial and ethnic groups, with varied life experiences, who face multiple obstacles to education completion.

First-generation students are a large portion of the undergraduate population. Of all students:
• 24 percent of undergraduates have parents with no postsecondary education
• 56 percent of undergraduates have parents who may have some education but don’t have a bachelor’s degree
• 59 percent of the students whose parents do not have a bachelor’s degree are the first sibling in their family to go to college.

First-generation students are ethnically diverse, and not all from minority groups. Of these students:
• 46 percent are white
• 18 percent are black
• 25 percent are Hispanic
• 6 percent are Asian
First-generation students often have life experiences that are different from other students and affect their education journey. Among first-generation students:
• 30 percent have dependents
• 5 percent are veterans
• 60 percent attend school part-time
• 66 percent are employed and work an average of 20 hours per week
• 20 percent are non-native-English speakers
• 34 percent are 30 years of age or older

The path through higher education is challenging for all students. But any of these circumstances make higher education attainment more difficult for first-generation students than for continuing-generation students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Six years after beginning postsecondary education 20 percent of first generation students have earned a bachelor’s degree compared to 49 percent of continuing-generation students; 56 percent will have earned no credential compared to 11 percent of continuing-generation students. And first-generation students are more than twice as likely to leave school within three years as continuing-generation students.

One reason for lower attainment among first-generation students is that higher education is not part of their experience. “In addition to financial challenges, first-generation students are navigating a system that is new to them, that taxes them experientially, psychologically, and emotionally,” argues Donald Earl Collins, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, University College.Not knowing how to navigate the system may mean higher expenses. For example, the National Association of College Stores says that first generation students spend 17 percent more per textbook than continuing-generation students; they may not know all the options such as buying used books, renting or using digital materials. Not knowing the system can also mean not tapping into all available resources. There is a 20 percent lower rate of first-generation students seeking help of an advisor than continuing-generation students.

Employer tuition assistance programs can offer students help as they go through their first experiences with higher education. Tuition reimbursement can relieve the financial burden, making it possible for students to manage school and living expenses. Education benefits that include advising will help first-generation students move through unfamiliar territory in a timely manner. Helping students develop education and career paths provides a return on investment to employers who know that educating employees will develop a skilled workforce. Helping first-generation students complete higher education is helping create a more education US population that participates more fully in the economy and is prepared for future advancement.

By Kathleen Eischeid, Edcor Business Development Coordinator