33% of first-gen students drop out within 3 years

First-generation students are less likely to complete a postsecondary degree than their peers, finds a longitudinal study by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

But the achievement gap between first-gen students and their peers narrows once first-gen students obtain a bachelor's degree, Grace Bird writes for Inside Higher Ed.

To produce the study, NCES researchers analyzed the degree enrollment rates, completion rates, and employment outcomes of three student cohorts. Researchers compared the outcomes of first-gen students to the outcomes of students whose parents had attended or completed college.

Parents' educational backgrounds affect two main points of the first-gen student experience: college choice and persistence, Bird writes.

College choice

Nearly half of first-gen students attend community college, compared to only 25% of students with college-educated parents, according to the study. First-gen students are also less likely to attend a public four-year university (26%) or a private college (7%), whereas 45% of their peers chose a public four-year institution and 23% chose a private college, Bird writes.


Once first-gen students are on campus, they are less likely to graduate on time. Only 48% of first-gen students are on track to graduate three years after enrollment, compared to about 66% of non-first-gen students. First-gen students are also more than twice as likely to leave school within three years (33%) than students whose parents have a bachelor's degree (14%).

Although first-gen students might take longer to finish their degrees, they experience similar employment rates and salary outcomes as their non-first gen counterparts, Bird writes.  

Since first-gen students don't have a family member to rely on for guidance, some colleges and universities are taking a proactive approach to connect students with resources and build on-campus community support.

Here's how colleges are boosting first-gen student outcomes:

  • Georgetown University developed a Thrive Guide to address questions that a student’s parents might not be able to help with if they did not attend college;
  • The University of Rochester developed a campaign for faculty and staff to both visibly show their support of first-gen students and help these students find the resources they need; and
  • California State University, Bakersfield launched a "15 to Finish" campaign that emphasizes the importance of the 15-credit semester to stay on the four-year graduation track.

 (Bird, Inside Higher Ed, 2/13; NCES study, accessed 2/13)

Keep reading: 2 ways to help first-gen students navigate your college's hidden curriculum

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