Retention Rate of First Generation College Students

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1st Jan 1970 Education Reference this


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A first generation college student is a student for whom both parents or guardians have a high school education or less and have never begun a postsecondary degree (Inkelas, Daver, Vogt, & Leonard, 2007). These students are at a disadvantage of obtaining at least a bachelor’s degree because they are a high-risk population for dropping out of college. At four-year institutions, first-generation college students have a 23% chance of dropping out of school before their second year compared to 10% of students whose parents held a bachelor’s degree (Tym, McMillion, Barone, & Webster, 2004). Controlling for factors associated with not returning, such as delayed enrollment after high school, working full-time, low financial aid, gender, race, and ethnicity, first-generation status was still a significant indicator of a student leaving before their second year (Choy, 2001). This is a social and economical problem because a vast majority of jobs today require some sort of postsecondary education, whether it be a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Several factors are thought to influence retention rates in college. Difficulties in cultural, psychosocial, and cognitive transitioning are the major factors (Hertel, 2002; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004; Pike & Kuh, 2005; Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996). This paper discusses the role of educational interventions in the retention of first-generation college students and the best time to implement these programs. The advantage of implementing interventions early is thought to be the improvement of retention rates of first-generation college students.

Transitioning Difficulties

Traditional students are at a higher rate of attaining a degree compared to their first-generation student peers. Researchers questioned why this may be and sought to find essential factors that play a role in the lack of success in first-generation college students. A general assumption is that parental education is a major influence on a student’s choice to attend college and the student’s determination to do well. The risk of departing college within the first year, regardless of the reason, was cited to be 71% higher for first-generation college students than students with college-educated parents (Ishitani, 2003). Although this finding supports a higher percentage of drop outs than those of Choy (2001) and Tym et al. (2004), the results from all three studies are comparable; they investigated how first-generation college students are at least twice as likely to drop out of school as their traditional student peers.

Martinez, Sher, Krull, and Wood (2009) assessed the characteristics and experiences of students that are most predictive of attrition, or non-enrollment. They examined how different factors interact with being a first generation student. This study, with 28.7% of the participants being first-generation students, hypothesized that attrition factors both moderate and mediate the effect of parental education on a student’s attrition from college. A moderator influences the strength of the relationship between first-generation students and their risk of attrition. In this study, GPA was found to be the only moderator or circumstance among all the factors that made a difference (Martinez et al., 2009). Being a first-generation college student is a bigger risk if GPA is poor. Mediators explain how the relationship between first-generation college student status and risk of attrition occurs. ACT scores, funding, and GPA each acted as mediators; each of these factors was related to parental education as well as attrition (Martinez et al., 2009). Since mediators are the most influential in explaining why low parental education leads to a greater risk of attrition for first generation students, this study preludes how parental education can affect a first-generation college student’s transition to college culturally, psychosocially, and cognitively.

Making the transition from high school to college can be difficult for anyone. It is especially difficult for those students who are both first-generation and identify as a minority race or ethnicity. Transition can be difficult due to a separation from close family and friends (Garcia, 2010). These students may also find trouble appreciating what the college has to offer because they typically come from families with low income and work at least part-time to pay for their education. Martinez et al. (2009) found that first-generation college students had more scholarships and loans, but a lack of funding from savings and familial contributions. It is important to note here that their findings contrast what was previously found about parental education being an indicator of attrition. Lack of scholarship was found to be a more precise indicator of attrition than lower parental education (Martinez et al., 2009). One way to eliminate the placement of a financial status label upon a student is through successful cultural transitioning. First-generation females and minorities living on campus tended to be more engaged in the institution (Pike & Kuh, 2005). This finding can be somewhat misleading since most first-generation students tend to live off-campus and at home.

A second component of the cultural transition is the variances in an understanding of the basic knowledge of postsecondary education. A clear line is drawn that establishes how first-generation college students view college as opposed to second-generation and other traditional students. First-generation college students saw the school’s environment as scholarly and less as an opportunity for occupational preparation (Terenzini et al., 1996). These students see their parents as living socioeconomically stable lives without a college degree and think that they can be just like them. Hertel (2002) points out that for traditional college students, parents who went to college pass on knowledge about the college culture. This knowledge has seemed to decrease attrition rates in college. On the other hand, some first-generation college students have reported that they felt like two different people- one at home and one at college (Bryan & Simmons, 2009). These students are divided between family and friends back home who are minimally educated and peers who share in the wealth of knowledge gained through college.

The second factor explaining why first-generation college students typically do not persist in postsecondary education is difficulty in a psychosocial transition. First-generation college students living off campus and working find it difficult to get involved in extracurricular activities and meeting with other students and faculty (Pascarella et al., 2004). These results support what was found in earlier research. Second-generation college students were cited to have had higher social adjustments due to support, more knowledge about college, and had a greater focus on college activities (Hertel, 2002). These students typically live on campus and are focusing on their academia, rather than working.

Living on campus allows traditional students to meet with faculty more readily. This can instill thoughts of availability and support from the faculty. Unfortunately for first-generation college students, they do not see faculty as being concerned for student development and teaching (Terenzini et al., 1996). This is troublesome because students who feel welcomed and can interact freely with their professors are the ones who hold a higher interest in the institution and their academic success. First-generation college students are at a disadvantage in transitioning psychosocially and face the risk of institutional attrition.

Cognitive transitioning for first-generation college students is the third factor in determining the attainment of a college degree. A successful cognitive transition requires academic preparation and college aspirations (Martinez et al., 2009). Pascarella et al. (2004) found that a first-generation college student’s academic preparation could be assessed by ACT scores, a standardized measure of reading and critical thinking. Martinez et al. (2009) found that first-generation college students had lower ACT scores compared to their traditional-student peers. This is just one way of showing how first-generation college students are less prepared academically for college.

First-generation students seem to have a more difficult time being academically successful and have less motivation to persist in earning a degree. Degree plans and future aspirations of first-generation college students varied greatly from second-generation and traditional college students. First-generation students would prefer to take easier courses rather than ones that may propose a challenge. Compared to their traditional peers, first-generation college students were more likely to take pre-professional courses and less of the humanities and social sciences (Terenzini et al., 1996). Pike and Kuh (2005) further observed this phenomenon that students’ educational aspirations improved with positive perceptions of the college environment. Both perceptions of the college and the environment and integration were directly related to gains in learning and intellectual development (Pike & Kuh, 2005). Pascarella et al. (2004) noted that first-generation college students made smaller increases in the highest degree they planned to obtain. This may be due to the fact that second-generation students may be more aware of the role advanced degrees play in the labor-market. All of these studies examined how important a successful cognitive and academic transition can be for the success and potential retention of first-generation college students.

Educational Interventions

First-generation college students can increase their chances of retention and receiving a degree if they are exposed to academic resources provided by the college. The purpose of these resources is to help better prepare first-generation college students for college readiness. College readiness involves understanding student characteristics and skills within the context of college (Byrd & MacDonald, 2005). Resources can include anything from meeting with college staff, specially designed institutional programs, or a gathering place for students. Effective interventions are crucial for the first-generation college student’s mindset. Once they are enrolled in college, they carry not only their own individual hopes, but the aspirations of their families and communities (Jehangir, 2010). Admission into college is a milestone for first-generation students. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the type of intervention utilized would be able to provide first-generation college students with the tools they need to graduate. The most effective interventions should focus on the students’ strengths and existing skills (Martinez et al., 2009).

The first intervention model that has been shown to be effective is the Social Cognitive Career Theory. This model was introduced after the identification of five ways that first-generation college students differ from their peers- lack of parental experience with college applications, academic and personal preparation for college, reasons for going to college, and personality and living differences. Social Cognitive Career Theory examines the progression of academic interests in students and how to take the next step and make those interests a career option through self-efficacy and goal setting. The effectiveness of this model came from the fact that it focuses on socio-cognitive constructs to explain career development (Gibbons & Shoffner, 2004). High school counselors would be able to use this technique to help potential first-generation college students prior to entering college. This resource is able to provide knowledge about college to potential first-generation college students that they cannot find elsewhere. The next educational intervention includes living-learning communities. These communities are residential communities where students live together in a specific residence hall with a shared academic or thematic focus and have access to academic programming and services (Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Inkelas et al., 2007; Stassen, 2003). The purpose of living-learning communities is to ease the academic and social transition to college for first-generation college students. This model seems to be the most popular and successful among all the interventions. Studies have shown that first-generation college students who participate in living-learning communities are more likely to perceive an easier academic and social transition to college than those in traditional residence halls (Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Inkelas et al., 2007; Stassen, 2003). The reason for this is that these students are going through the same experiences of learning to live on their own and take more responsibility upon themselves.

The success of this intervention is found in the concept of having first-generation college students live within one area of the residence halls, have access to multiple resources, and participate in activities that require teamwork and social interactions. Stassen (2003) observed the outcomes of living-learning communities when he studied 477 students in a living-learning community and 328 students not in a living-learning community at a large northeastern university. Significant differences were found between the two groups in areas of academic integration; however, faculty integration did not improve (Stassen, 2003). This can be accounted for through the actual program concept. Its design focuses on initiating peer interactions, not connecting faculty and students.

The popularity of living-learning programs has led to the development of different types of living-learning communities. These specialty programs range from communities for honors students to talent advancement to curriculum-based models (Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Stassen, 2003). However, no matter which living-learning community a first-generation college student chooses, there has been a significant positive effect on first-semester GPA and one-year retention (Stassen, 2003). Therefore, interested students should decide for themselves which community seems the most fitting. It should be noted that the majority of these results were observed after the first semester by cross-sectional studies.

One particular study examined the effectiveness of a Freshman Empowerment Program. After observing 53 students placed in this program and 53 students placed in a control group at the same university, Folger, Carter, and Chase (2004) found that the GPA of first-generation college students increased from first-semester to the second-semester and that each semester’s GPA as well as their cumulative GPA was higher than those students not in the program. Inkelas et al. (2007) point out that the impact of living-learning programs may not be well-understood until after students have had time to reflect on their living-learning experiences. It would be interesting to see if first-generation college students’ retention rate continued to exist as they progressed through all four years of college. An effective living-learning program would instill a positive attitude on the students and give them the resources they need to succeed.

A third educational intervention involves an idea that gets to the heart of the problem- low persistence among first-generation college students. Many researchers have approached this problem in many ways resulting in multiple solutions. Cabrera, Nora, and Castaneda (1993) wanted to know if merging Tinto’s Student Integration Theory and Bean’s Student Attrition Model would better explain first-generation college students’ persistence. The Student Integration Theory attributed attrition to a lack of congruency between students and institutions, whereas the Student Attrition Model recognized that behavioral intentions are shaped by a process whereby beliefs shape attitudes, and attitudes influence behavioral intents (Cabrera et al., 1993). The solution then becomes to have institutions incorporate encouragement and support from significant others into the conceptual frameworks examining student persistence.

The foundation for researchers to examine the role family has in the persistence of first-generation college students was established when Cabrera et al. (1993) noted a positive effect of encouragement from friends and family found on commitments to the institution. A handful of later studies have consistently shown that parents, family members, and friends in the students’ previous communities can provide encouragement and reinforce the students’ decision to attend and persist throughout college (Bryan & Simmons, 2009; Elkins, Braxton, & James, 2000; McCarron & Inkelas, 2006). McCarron and Inkelas (2006) used 3,758 students, half of which were first-generation college students, to suggest that the main predictor of attainment for first-generation college students was not parental involvement; rather, it was students’ perceptions of the importance of good grades. Family members tend to influence adolescents’ decision-making regarding educational and occupational pursuits. This may be the reason why first-generation college students feel an overpowering sense of pressure to succeed in school in order to please their families and communities (Bryan & Simmons, 2009). Some of these results can be misleading, however. The development of an intervention model that provides programming for first-generation college students and their parents may help improve retention and graduation rates.

The last intervention model examines what can be done within the college institution itself. Braxton and McClendon (2001) believed that the responsibility for student retention is campus-wide. Everyone from peers to faculty to administration play a role in the retention of first-generation college students. They have come up with an array of recommendations shown to positively influence social integration and retention. The first suggests that academic advisors urge their students to take courses from faculty members who receive high score ratings on organization, preparation, skill, and clarity. Organization and skill positively influence social integration and persistence. Second, administrative policies and procedures should be made clear and enforced fairly to students to ensure persistence. Third, the enrollment management should prepare recruitment activities accurately portraying the institution. This is important because a student’s decision to attend a particular college falls heavily on their expectations for what college life will be like. The next recommendation involves the faculty. Workshops and seminars should be attended by faculty so that they can learn how to incorporate cooperative and collaborative learning into their classrooms. Lastly, student orientation programs for first-year students provide students with the opportunity to learn everything about the school. Successful orientation programs develop opportunities for first-generation students to socially interact with their peers (Braxton & McClendon, 2001). Implementing any, if not all, of these recommendations would result in more well-adjusted students and a higher retention rate due to the fact that these students will want to continue learning in an institution that is both welcoming and helpful.

A major limitation of all these intervention studies is the researchers’ short-term observation. For more accurate findings on the effectiveness of different interventions, researchers should be working on observing these first-generation college students in their senior year and a few years after graduation. This would essentially confirm the success of these interventions.

Simply having these different educational interventions readily available will not help first-generation college students. The next step is trying to figure out the best time to implement them. Aside from the Social Cognitive Career Theory, which is designed for college-bound high-school students, few researchers explored the timing of intervention for students at risk of departure. A proposed way of investigating student attrition is using event modeling techniques when students are more likely to leave their institutions (Ishitani, 2008). Departure risks of students vary over time, and students are at a higher risk of departure at various points in time depending on their characteristics. Knowing when students are more likely to leave helps institutional personnel in designing systematic intervention plans to lower the institutional attrition rate.


First-generation college students have many factors working against them, but they can be just as successful as their traditional peers, so long as they have access to different educational interventions. First-generation college students have to adjust to cultural, psychosocial, and cognitive transitions. A few of the many problems these students encounter include: having a part-time job, separation from friends and family, variances in an understanding of the basic knowledge of postsecondary education, poor academic preparation, and poor interactions with peers and faculty. Most of first-generation college students’ time is consumed by either traveling to and from school or working. Those first-generation college students who are fortunate enough to live on campus face a different dilemma. Their lifestyle at home is very different than college culture and they feel a need to be two different people, one at home and one at school. It seems that the underlying trouble stems from being unprepared for postsecondary education. Fortunately, first-generation college students can raise their self-esteem and be better equipped for college if they utilize any and all resources available to them through the institution. Programs such as Social Cognitive Career Theory, living-learning communities, Freshman Empowerment Groups, and changes within the college institution itself will allow for better social interactions with peers and peace of mind knowing that they made the right decision and are motivated to learn, graduate, and have a successful career.


The accessibility of many educational interventions leaves researchers to ask which model would be most effective. Living-learning communities are flexible, giving each postsecondary institution an opportunity to accommodate their different student populations. Living-learning communities can be designed with any particular group in mind. Also, this program is very popular and used throughout many of the country’s colleges and universities. First-generation college students do not need to feel like they are being singled out in these programs as opposed to meeting individually with a counselor or advisor. Instead, they are with other students who are experiencing the same difficulties as they are. Lastly, these programs have been found to be successful in countless studies, a few of which were mentioned throughout this paper. The direction of research now should be a comparative study focusing on the effectiveness of living-learning communities with respect to other interventions.

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