Nearly a third of undergraduate students in the United States are first-generation.
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.
“First-generation students now make up a third of students nationwide, yet only 27 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree within four years of entering college, lagging far behind their continuing-generation peers,” says Sarah E. Whitley, Senior Director of the Center for First-generation Student Success. “While we know first-generation students are capable and making significant contributions, services for students are in flux across institutions today.”
A recent report from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and The Suder Foundation suggests that colleges must do a better job of defining “first-generation” and monitoring first-generation student outcomes. For instance, less than three in four institutions (73%) have a formal definition of “first-generation,” and just 28% indicate students’ first-generation status in systems that faculty can access and use.
Even more, only 41% of four-year institutions use data to develop first-generation student support programs and just 61% track first-generation student outcomes.
According to the report, the campuses that are most successful at supporting first-generation students take an “asset-based approach.” This means that, instead of focusing on the things first-generation students lack, the colleges recognize their contributions, celebrate their unique strengths, and encourage them to use their talents to enhance their college experience.
“Being first-generation is something that we celebrate,” Tadarrayl Starke, the Director for Florida State University‘s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, told EAB in 2018. “Leaders on campus, such as the student body president, university president, and provost speak positively about their own first-generation identity. If you come at it from an asset perspective, not a deficit perspective, you create community and opportunities for students to feel like they belong and can thrive.”
Here’s the full list of recommendations for colleges and universities outlined in the report:
1. Define “first-generation” early and consistently.
2. Don’t just develop a new program; advocate for institutional change.
3. Engage the community to lead sustained change.
4. Track the first-generation student experience.
5. Improve networking across the institution.
6. Promote actionable data and advancing research.
7. Develop an “asset-based” campus culture.
8. Strike a balance between broad reach and meaningful, sustained engagement.
9. Offer opportunities for intentional first-generation student involvement.
10. Consider ways to engage first-generation students from admission to graduation and beyond.