Do your students know if they're first-gen?

As colleges double down on recruiting first-generation students, murky definitions pose challenges for both prospective undergraduates and institutions measuring first-gen success, Rochelle Sharpe reports for the New York Times.

While nearly 60% of admissions directors plan to increase first-gen student recruitment, students hoping to claim first-gen status face a variety of definitions that can be confusing, Sharpe writes.

The Department of Education's legislative definition identifies first-generation students as those who have no parent with a bachelor's degree. But for research purposes, the department expands the first-gen definition to include students whose parents have no education after high school or no degree after high school, Sharpe writes.

Colleges and educational associations often use other definitions, too, she adds.

Two ways to help first-generation students navigate your college's 'hidden curriculum'

The many definitions can confuse students and push them to turn to online communities like College Confidential to sort out their first-gen status, Sharpe notes. Among a pool of 7,300 students, the number of students who classify as first-gen ranges from 22% to 77%, depending on the definition used, according to a report by Robert Toutkoshian, an education professor at the University of Georgia.

In the intense competition of college admissions, first-gen status can give disadvantaged students a leg up, Sharpe writes.

The importance of a prospective student's first-gen status can depend on the admission counselor, says William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University. For some counselors, first-gen status is a "tipping point," but for others, it's much more important, he adds.

But often, the most disadvantaged students don't advertise their first-gen experiences in their applications because they haven't heard of the first-gen label, don't believe they qualify, or fear that their background may hurt their chances, Fitzsimmons says.

To prioritize truly disadvantaged students, some public policy experts advise narrowing the first-gen definition. According to Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a law professor at Harvard, the first-gen definition should only include students whose parents never attended college and are Pell-grant eligible.

Similarly, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) released a report arguing that first-gen status should exclude students who have a parent who has earned an associate degree or higher, Sharpe writes. According to IHEP's report, students who had a parent with no education after high school had only a 50% six-year graduation rate, whereas students with a parent who earned an associate degree or higher had a 72% graduation rate (Sharpe, New York Times, 11/6).


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