First-generation students are those “whose parent(s)/legal guardian(s) have not completed a bachelor’s degree” (Common App, 2019). Of incoming Lafayette students, in recent years, between 13% – 14% self-identified as first-generation learners. Such students may not have the cultural capital to navigate college, and can face a variety of challenges in higher education that can impact their achievement and persistence.
In particular, first-generation students can have higher attrition rates compared to other learners when they transition from freshman to sophomore year (Pratt et al., 2019). While first-generation learners may have risk factors similar to their multi-generation counterparts, they can disproportionately face challenges such as financial insecurity, sense of belonging and other threats to academic success. They may also experience different obstacles depending on their major. In a study at a large, urban university, a low first-semester GPA was a significant predictor of the attrition of first-generation students (Dika & D’Amico, 2015). For those majoring in physical science, engineering, mathematics or computer science, prior preparation in math was a significant predictor of attrition. For students in other-STEM and non-STEM majors, perceived social fit was a significant predictor, while perception of academic fit was a significant predictor for non-STEM majors. Such outcomes highlight how multiple factors can impact the college experience of first-generation learners.
Faculty and administrative staff interacting with first-generation learners can use a variety of inclusive approaches to help such students achieve their academic goals. Being aware of intersecting identities such as low-income status and underrepresentation is also important for faculty teaching first-generation students. Below are recommendations that have the potential to benefit all learners, especially first-generation students (Numb, 2019).
- Reevaluate any assumptions held about what students should know when they enter college and modify instruction accordingly.
- Explain the purpose of office hours, etc. for which first-gen students may not have had experience.
- Do not expect complete mastery of material from high school given the disparate experiences that students bring to college.
- Provide students with multiple opportunities to learn material such as through review sessions.
- Create lower-stakes opportunities early in the course for learners to experience college-level assessments and activities.
- If a course has a major writing assignment or a midterm exam, early in the semester, provide an opportunity for students to complete a similarly challenging assignment or test that has a lower-weighted grade.
- Provide clear reasons and instructions for pedagogical choices and classroom activities.
- Explain how and why students are completing classroom activities such as group work and independent assignments.
- Normalize the challenges of college (academic, social, etc.) and encourage a growth mindset.
- Reinforce that college is challenging for most students. Empathy expressed by professors and administrative staff can be particularly meaningful for first-generation students.
- Advocate and normalize seeking tutoring and other resources when needed and explain the benefits.
- Academic support can help all students achieve their educational goals, including first-gen students. Present resources such as tutoring offered by the Academic Resource Hub to all students, including first-gen learners.
- Provide midterm grades to increase student awareness of their academic status earlier in the semester, and give opportunities for them to seek out proper resources and/or make changes in their study habits or skills before the end of the semester.
- Consider the other social identities or life situations that first-generation students may hold or experience that can impact their achievement.
- Some first-gen learners may also be low income and have obligations to work to support themselves and their families. Others may be from groups historically underrepresented in the discipline.
- Encourage students to seek out the support systems that they have as first-generation learners at Lafayette as described below.
- Seek out opportunities to have more formal and informal interactions with students such as outside of class or through co-curricular activities and initiatives.
- Advise students to join communities of belonging such as the First-Gen mentoring program.
- Advise students to seek out high-impact educational opportunities such as undergraduate research, study abroad and capstone courses.
- As a faculty member, consider becoming more actively involved in orientation events for students or being a mentor for students who are first-generation students.
First-Gen Resources @ Lafayette
Support for First-Generation Students at Lafayette:
- First-Generation Mentoring Program
- Success@Lafayette Summer Pilot Course
- Alpha Alpha Alpha (“Tri-Alpha”) Honor Society
Common App. Retrieved from: commonapp.org
Dika, SL, D’Amico, MM. (2015). Early experiences and integration in the persistence of first-generation college students in STEM and non-STEM majors. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 53(3), 368 – 383.
Numb, L. (2019). 33 Simple Strategies for Faculty: A Week-by-Week Resource for Teaching First-Year and First-Generation Students. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Pratt, S, Harwood, HB, Cavazos, JT, Ditzfeld, CP. (2017). Should I Stay or Should I Go? Retention of First-Generation Students. Journal of College Student Retention Theory and Practice, 0(0) 1–14.
Soria, KM & Stebleton, MJ. (2012). First-generation students’ academic engagement and retention. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(6), 673-685.