What seems like an obvious answer becomes complicated when we realize that individual institutions can define “first generation” as they see fit.
The Higher Education Act amendment of 1998 defines a first generation college student as “(A) An individual both of whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree; or (B) In the case of any individual who regularly resided with and received support from only one parent, and individual whose only such parent did not complete a baccalaureate degree.”
However, when it comes to college admissions, schools can use their own criteria to determine what constitutes “first generation”. Some colleges will be actively seeking students and will develop a broad definition while other colleges will only want to help the most disadvantaged students and will narrow the definition.
While “first generation” may be connoted with low income or minority students, there are of course middle and high income families whose parents did not attend college.
Impact on College
Why do we bother defining and classifying students as first gen? Obviously students who choose to attend college without having parents or others in their family attend can be a very big achievement and is something to be proud of. However, for education policymakers, the desire is to find under-served students and to help them succeed in their college career.
Studies show that first gen students are less likely to attend college, have a harder time succeeding academically and tend to have much higher dropout rates compared to students whose parents attended college.
For example, in a report published by the US Department of Education titled “First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes”, 58% of first gen students had enrolled in college immediately after graduation. This is significantly lower than students who had parents with a bachelor’s degree – 78%. This implies first gen students are less likely to attend college.
Students are also less likely to stay in college if they are first generation. Students whose parents never attended college had a 33% drop out rate after three years versus 26% of students whose parents had some college education and only 14% of students whose parents had obtained bachelor’s degrees had dropped out.
Tips on Success
There are several things you can do to increase your chance of success. First up – find the right college and major for you. Students who choose a major that fits their skills and personality best are more likely to graduate on time, from the college they started with, and get better grades too.
Finances are another important factor. Studies show students who take on large amounts of debt are also more likely to drop out early. As a first generation student you may have access to financial help and other resources specific to you. Don’t be shy about sharing your story and requesting assistance. There are many who will be eager to help you.
First generation students often have trouble navigating the college search and application process as they have no one close to them to guide them through a sometimes confusing process. Reach out to guidance counselor and teachers for assistance.
Once you are in school be sure to take advantage of resources such as counselors and student groups so you can learn the ropes of your college. Be proactive and take advantage of office hours with teaching assistants and professors. The more you push yourself the quicker you will learn the ropes and learn what works best for you. Take pride in your first generation status but don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it!
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