The First-Generation Student Experience

The first-generation student makes up a distinct and unique sub-population of students with somewhat different characteristics, needs, and outcomes than continuing-generation students, especially during their first year in college. This research note addresses some of the differences found in first vs. continuing-generation first-year student experiences and attitudes, as well as the impact of generational status on academic performance.

For the purposes of this note, a first-generation student is defined as a student whose parents or guardians have not completed a four-year (i.e., Bachelor’s) degree.

Key Questions about the First-Generation Student:

  1. How many students are first-generation?
  2. What are they key differences between first-generation and continuing-generation students?

Key Points:

  • Our sample was relatively split between first- and continuing-generation students.
  • First-generation students have significantly lower cumulative GPAs compared to continuing-generation students.
  • First-generation students work more, but also struggle more with finances, academics, and social connectedness.

How Many Students Are First-Generation?

Two data points were used to calculate a first-generation student variable. First, campuses could upload a profile item indicating the highest level of education completed by a parent or guardian. For students who did not have this profile item, we used a survey question asking the highest level of education completed by a parent or guardian. First-year students who did not have either of these data points were excluded from this analysis. Figure 1 of the connected research note displays the breakdown of first-year survey respondents by generational status. Forty-three percent indicated that the highest level of education completed by a parent or guardian was less than a four-year college degree.

One difference of particular interest was the distinctly higher number of first-generation students who work, and the greater number of hours worked on average by those who do when compared to their continuing-generation peers.

First-Generation Students vs. Continuing-Generation Students: Key Differences

This analysis compared student self-evaluations of key academic behaviors, social experiences, and commitment based on generational status. A selection of the factors and variables with the greatest group difference are presented to shed some light on the different experiences of the two groups.