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Entering college for the first time is difficult for many students, even those whose families are able to prepare them for the road ahead. Often, first-generation college students face an even more difficult transition, and unfortunately, one out of three first-generation students quit college within the first three years. Compare that with 26% of those whose parents attended some college and 14% of those whose parents hold a bachelor’s degree. In response, it’s critical that student development professionals have appropriate resources in place to help students in this demographic thrive and reach graduation.
Identifying first-generation college students
Higher education recognizes a student as a first-generation college student (FGCS) if either of the following is true: neither of the student’s parents has a four-year college degree or the student only receives support from one parent who doesn’t have a four-year college degree.
As noted by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates 56% of U.S. undergraduates are first-generation college students, and 59% of these students are the first sibling in their family to go to college. Among U.S. first-generation undergraduate students, 41% are Black and 61% are Latinx, compared with 25% of white and Asian-American students. The prevalence of first-generation college students in colleges and universities compels student development professionals to have more conversations about how to best support first-generation students—particularly in the first year.
Unique challenges first-generation students face
According to the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), the six-year graduation rate for first-generation students is 2.5 times lower than continuing generation students.
Some of the primary challenges that first-generation students face when going to college include:
Family conflicts and guilt
First-generation students often experience guilt over leaving their families and/or their financial responsibilities at home. Many first-generation students feel bad that they have opportunities other family members do not have.
First-generation students commonly feel embarrassed, as though they are imposters on campus. Without long family traditions of going to college, this is understandable: It’s harder for them to feel like they fit in with peers.
First-generation students may be less knowledgeable about navigating available resources, including healthcare options, financial aid work-study programs, internships, academic advising, and counseling. In comparison, their peers who have family members who attended college often get guidance from their parents or older siblings about these resources.
Some first-generation students come from less rigorous high schools or have lower scores on standardized tests. This can lead to having less confidence in academics than their continuing-generation peers. Further, without a family history and experience in higher education, students may arrive on campus not knowing what to expect from professors, campus life, and social opportunities.
Difficulty navigating the academic system
Greater social isolation
The feelings of insecurity and fear about acceptance may result in isolation among first-gen students. Fewer available financial resources may limit their ability to participate in campus-based social events and remote opportunities, such as spring break, which adds to the feeling of isolation.
Stigma and discrimination
Racial or ethnic minority groups make up more than a third of first-generation students. As such, they have to overcome racial disparities and discrimination. They may be the target of prejudice about both their minority status and lower socioeconomic status, which often lead to alienation, isolation, marginalization, and loneliness.
In addition, an in-depth literature review from the University of California, Merced confirms that first-generation students reportedly experience more obstacles regarding their mental health. They also experience more stress, a decreased sense of belonging, and lower life satisfaction when compared to continuing-generation students. And over the past two years, COVID-19 and its variants (i.e., Delta, Omicron) only compounded the matter.
How COVID-19 impacted first-generation college students
Before the pandemic, first-generation students felt marginalized from campus mental health care systems and support services. A more recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows a 40% increase in anxiety and a 48% increase in depression among students during the pandemic—with a disproportionate impact on students of color and first-generation students.
A study by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium (SERU) based at the University of California, Berkeley found first-generation college students faced more severe financial hardships during the pandemic than their continuing-generation peers. Another negative financial aspect of the pandemic is the persistent digital divide. Eighty-five percent of students who only had access to a single device were classified as underserved students (i.e., low-income, first-generation, or minority). The fact is, first-generation low-income students struggle to afford the necessary resources, which leads to negative implications for their academic performance, career readiness, and graduation rate.
The SERU study also found that first-generation students often reported living in households where physical and emotional distress were prevalent. And because of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on low-income and Black and Hispanic families, many first-generation students worry about affording food and housing. Studies also found that first-generation students are more likely to be responsible for child care, as younger children in the household had to transition to virtual learning as well.
These various issues suggest student development professionals need to pay particular attention to their first-generation students if they want to maintain graduation rates and effectively serve those who could benefit most from completing their education on time.
How higher education can support first-generation students
The Center for First-Generation Success publishes a variety of reports, case studies, programs, and resources to equip student development professionals to support first-gen students. Its report, First-Generation Student Success, says this: states “The most successful campuses are taking an ‘asset-based approach’—one that recognizes the substantial contributions of first-generation students to academics and campus life—to developing programs that utilize the inherent strengths of first-generation students to improve belonging, efficacy, and overall outcomes.”
The report also provides a set of broad recommendations:
- An institutional focus on first-generation students during the first-year experience is needed, rather than just individual programs.
- Institutions then need to shift their mindset to become “student-ready” instead of bemoaning students who aren’t “college-ready.”
- Organize networks and cohorts to engage first-generation students, build community, enable a sense of belonging, and facilitate mentoring.
- Make student services more visible and proactive, particularly considering that first-gen students may have less awareness or need greater orientation.
- Consider the intersectional identities of first-gen students, who may also be veterans, students of color, have a disability, be parents, and other characteristics.
Support first-gen students
In addition to these recommendations, Inside Higher Education’s Alecea Standlee published the following list of ways faculty and advisors can support first-generation students:
Teach study skills
Encourage students to connect with campus activities and groups. If relevant to the course, offer them extra credit for attending.
Include first-generation experiences in the material. Invite a first-generation colleague to guest lecture, and ask them to talk about their own status before diving into class material.
Supporting first-generation students on your campus
Campus health and well-being programs and services should be guided by the principle of decreasing barriers to access. Instead of traditional models in which students are assigned to individual clinicians who may or may not be easy to access, student development professionals could consider creating more flexible models of care.
Many higher education institutions have shifted to providing both on-campus and virtual telehealth options for students to support their needs 24/7. Care delivered through telehealth is fast, easy, and efficient. It eliminates wait times, reduces the stigma of seeking mental and medical care, and is available the moment a student needs it. When your first-generation students don’t have to wait days or weeks for a counseling center appointment, there is a positive effect on the overall health and wellness of your campus.
Contact TimelyCare to learn how mental and physical virtual health for colleges can make a difference in the lives of your first-generation college students.