My dad, who never finished high school, would have said: “What the hell is a first-generation college student?” I suspect he is not alone. Well Dad, I was a first-generation college student because you and mom did not go to college.
My dad was a fireman. My mom sewed athletic shoes in a factory where everyone spoke Portuguese. As a Portuguese-American, she fit in because she was bilingual. Today, it is an advantage to be bilingual; but back then in Boston, it was simply a class differentiator. Of course, my Irish-American dad did not want my sister and me to be bilingual because it would have been considered a societal deficit.
Little did we know that simply being the first in our family to attend college started us out in life with a deficit, as compared to my college classmates who were the second or third generation of college students in their families. No one treated us “first-generation” students differently. The truth is, in many ways, we were simply unprepared for the college experience.
Like Purdue University Northwest, the student body of my undergraduate institution, back when I attended, comprised a majority of first-generation students. This is probably why we were told on the first day of orientation, “Look to your right, then look to your left; only one of you will be graduating with a degree.” At the time, I perceived it as a scare tactic – which, by the way, worked on me. In hindsight, it was a truthful reality check.
Even today, first-generation college students lag woefully behind in degree completion from their peers who come from families where at least one parent has a college degree. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported in 2011 that the gap between these two groups in the six-year graduation rate varied in private universities by 12 percent (69 percent vs. 80 percent), in public universities by 14 percent (54 percent vs. 68 percent), and undergraduate publics by 9 percent (43 percent vs. 52 percent).
There are many ways in which universities can help close these gaps; most significant is to insure that “new” incoming freshman are made aware of all the resources available to support their success. Research has found that first-generation students who use a college’s various academic resources and services tend to perform equally, and sometimes better, than their continuing-generation peers.
There are many other factors that impact student success – like developing strong study habits and establishing college friendships. Students who are academically and socially engaged with their universities tend to perform better and complete their degrees. Life circumstances for some first-generation college students, though, can present obstacles.
Many first-generation students are very concerned with the cost of college, and the financial impact on their families. As such, many work part-time. Their need to get to work may lead to purchasing a car. The expense of a car loan and maintenance can begin taking precedence over their degree completion goal.
The brightest of these part-time workers are often sought to work more hours, or perhaps offered full-time employment. In either instance, work can become more important than college, and grades suffer.
Others face pressure from their families to provide care to a young sibling or disabled parent or grandparent. Again, these life events can easily become first priorities over academic or social activities on campus.
One place that universities must do a better job is to engage interested parents in the transition. Parents, too, can be a distraction if they do not share the same values associated with the drive to degree completion. Parents can unknowingly become distractions and universities have an obligation to help them understand their role in aiding degree completion for their children.
While these are not the only factors influencing student success, this reflection was intended to focus on first-generation students. Please know that all the institutions of higher education in Northwest Indiana are well aware of the impact of being first generation, as well as other factors, and each of us have developed proactive programs to help our students who need additional support for success.
Thomas L. Keon, Ph.D., is chancellor of Purdue University Northwest.