Nearly 1 in 3 students are first generation

Schools need to do a better job measuring first-generation students' progress

For the 32% of undergraduate students in the United States categorized as first generation, the challenges to obtaining a degree continue long after the admissions process, Pete Musso reports for Voice of America's "Learning English."

According to research from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW Georgetown), only 40% of first-generation students achieve a degree within six years, compared with 55% of students whose parents hold degrees.

Musso chalks up the low statistic to a number of challenges unique to students who are the first in their families to pursue a post-secondary degree.

The first such challenge comes right away: when applying.

"A lot of times, students don't even know where to begin the process, like what kind of questions they need to be asking," says Maria Urena, a college advisor for the College Success Foundation (CSF).

First-generation students may have college counselors to advise them about their choices, but they lack advice from parents. For students from college-going families, parents often share tips stemming from their own undergraduate experiences.

How to help first-generation students establish confidence

First-generation students also typically benefit from extra help with the application process, since their parents are unable to advise them about unclear or complex application steps.

Nicole Smith, chief economist at CEW Georgetown, encourages institutions to ensure that any information offered to prospective students is straightforward and comprehensible.

The challenges continue when students arrive on campus.

Smith says that first-generation students tend to feel as if they don't belong, even after they've been accepted to an institution.

These students also experience higher pressure to succeed, since failing school would mean letting their families down. 

"They have a great fear of failure, because they feel if they fail, they not only fail themselves. They fail their parents. They fail their children or their potential children... they fail their other relatives," says Smith.    

Although there are certainly initiatives like CSF's working to improve graduation rates among first-generation students, Smith argues that colleges and universities need to put more resources into measuring first-generation students' progress, so as to better inform retention efforts (Musso, "Learning English," VOA, 10/29).


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