7 fast facts about your first generation students

Nearly a third of undergraduates in the United States are first generation students

To counter changing student demographics and falling enrollments, more colleges are focusing on recruiting—and graduating—first-generation students.

Nearly a third of undergraduate students in the United States are first-generation, defined as those who have no parent with a bachelor's degree.

While first-generation students are just as intelligent and motivated as their non-first-generation peers, they tend to lack some of the resources and knowledge necessary to navigate the complex college system. Students without a college-savvy adult to guide them can struggle to apply to college and graduate on time.

To help higher ed leaders recruit and support their first-gen students, we rounded up a few facts about these students and their college experience.

1: They’re more likely to attend a community college

Nearly half of first-gen students attend community college, compared to 25% of students with college-educated parents, according to a February 2018 study from the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

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.

2: They’re less likely to graduate on time

First-gen students are more than twice as likely to leave school within three years (33%) than students whose parents have a bachelor's degree (14%), according to the NCES. And only 48% of first-gen students are on track to graduate three years after enrollment, compared to about 66% of non-first-gen students.

3: They choose careers that give back to their communities

Almost two-thirds (61%) of first-gen students say they'd like to give back to their communities after they graduate, compared with just 43% of their non-first-generation peers, according to a study from the American Psychological Association.

4: They earn less than their peers

First-gen students often work in the public and not-for-profit sectors, which tend to pay less than jobs in the private and for-profit sectors. For example, first-gen men are 4% less likely than their peers to work in the for-profit sector and 3% more likely to work in a state or local government.

First-gen students receive an average starting salary 12% below the starting salary of their peers, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And the wage gap between first-gen students and their peers persists long after graduation.

First-gen men and women earn, respectively, 11% and 9% less per year (or $7,500 less and $4,350 less) than their peers, according to a study.  And first-gen men who studied arts and humanities earn up to 17% less than their peers who studied the same subject.

4 ways to support first-gen students

5: They're less likely to have a mentor

Only 25% of college graduates reported having a mentor who encouraged them to achieve their goals, according to the 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey. Of the students who reported having a mentor, 64% indicated the person was a professor.

But first-gen and minority students were far less likely to identify a professor as their mentor; 72% of white students identified their mentor as a professor, compared with 61% of first-gen students and just 47% of minority students.

6: They need more than financial support

Obstacles beyond tuition exist for many first-generation students. "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.

Many first-generation students simply do not know where to turn for help, even when colleges have a wealth of resources available. And when students encounter intimidating higher ed jargon terms, like “FAFSA,” they may "melt" before they arrive on campus or overlook campus resources, like librarians or office hours.

7: They may not know they're first-generation

A search for "Am I a first-generation student?" brings up thousands of hits on the CollegeConfidential.com message boards, and advocacy group I'm First lists this at the very top of their list of frequently asked questions.

Students are likely confused about their first-gen status because there are so many different definitions of first-generation students. The Department of Education uses two different definitions for legislative and research purposes. Colleges and educational associations often use other definitions, too.

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 one report from the University of Georgia. When students don't know if they're first-generation, they may lose a leg up in their application or miss out on resources that could help them succeed.


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