The Unique Needs of First Generation Students

Posted by on in President's Blog
  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Hits: 1179
  • 1 Comment
  • Subscribe to this entry
  • Print

Last week I shared a demographic profile of the incoming students to American colleges and universities. While this profile provided the “averages,” each institution has a somewhat different mix of students. In the case of institutions like Anna Maria College, our incoming students tend to reflect a higher percentage of first generation college students. The national average is close to 20% of incoming freshmen, AMC and other small colleges tend to enroll between 30-40%.

The fact that we enroll such a large percentage of these students may seem logical. Smaller institutions that provide a high quality education with a high degree of personal attention would seem to be the best environment for the first in the family college student.  But the challenges for these students ever getting to college are daunting.

A recent study by the “Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development” reports that the percentage of young adults attending college if their parents have not attended previously is one of the lowest among developed countries (29% or 14th among 37 countries studied). According to this research, there are increasing challenges for these students in terms of “social and economic mobility.”

With the inherent disadvantages of being a first generation college student, it is even more imperative that colleges and universities provide every opportunity for success. Here are some key findings from recent research on this population.

Before they even consider enrolling in college, too many first generation college families believe that they will not qualify for financial aid, and, therefore, can not afford a college education. A sad statistic from the American Council of Education is that last year alone, 1.8 million low-income and middle-income families who would have qualified for financial aid at almost any college failed to even apply.

The key reasons for this inaccurate perception relate to education. Because these families are so unfamiliar with the college acceptance process, they wrongly assume that they are not eligible for aid and/or that the deadlines for applying have passed. While affordability issues are real for all families, colleges need to do a much better job in communicating early and often about how financial aid works, eligibility requirements and the impact of all forms of aid on the ultimate cost of attendance.

There is also growing evidence that colleges can not simply rely on the typical “cognitive variables” in assessing student ability (i.e., scores on SAT or ACT tests and high school GPA). While this conclusion really applies to the way we assess all incoming students, it is especially true for first generation college students who are too often identified as “at risk” and provided generic support and assistance programs and services.

Student assessment needs to be holistic and more accurately determine the needs of each new student both academically and socially. A student’s level of “confidence, resilience and drive to succeed” may have as much to do with college success as academic ability.

Finally, first generation college students may arrive on our campuses with both a “curriculum gap” and a deficit in “cultural capital.” The curriculum gap relates to the high school of attendance and the course of study taken before college. According to the Department of Education, only 45% of Hispanic students and only 59% of white students attend a high school that offers calculus. This doesn’t mean that they are not ready for college, but it might require academic preparation if they want to pursue a STEM discipline.

“Cultural capital” refers to the ability to “navigate the academic environment” and participate fully in class sessions. Too often these students are not able to self-advocate and are more deferential to both their instructors and their fellow students. Summer bridge programs and first year experience classes need to help to develop these “skills,” as well as preparing students to handle their academic responsibilities.

Every student deserves the opportunity and the support to succeed. Colleges need to do a better job of understanding the unique challenges facing first generation college students and provide programs and services that not only provide access … but also insure success!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)


  • Guest
    Suzanne Kelly Tuesday, 25 September 2012

    Other concepts to consider:
    1. High school guidance counselors are NOT doing their jobs if they lack information on financial aid, scholarships in particular, to any student especially first generation students,
    2. Perhaps the 40-50% of first generation potential students and their families realize that they realize (realistically) will NOT be able to repay student loans. They should be commended for their honesty, reality and integrity.
    3. If the student w/”resilience, etc.” and below average SAT scores has that character/personality, they will persist on their own and obtain a college degree. Oftentimes, they resist the hand-holding/coddling that is rampant not only on college campuses, but also in high school. After all, they’ve read Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance” and they know that’s one of the concepts that makes this country what it is.
    Suzanne Kelly
    p.s. love your blogs!

Leave your comment

Guest Thursday, 31 July 2014