Defining ‘first-gen student’: New report explores complexities, limitations

U.S. colleges and universities have been increasingly focused on enrolling and supporting the needs of first-generation college students, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling ending affirmative action in college admission. However, U.S. colleges and universities often differ on how to define “first-generation” status, and those differences can lead to varying levels of student support, says a new brief from the Common Application.

This brief, the last in a three-part series focusing on the impact of these varying definitions,  explores the limitations of relying on first-generation status alone to understand a student’s economic or academic status.

“We are likely losing a very meaningful degree of information about students by focusing solely on the binary measure of first-generation and continuing-generation status,” the brief states.

On the other hand, considering a student’s parental degree combination, which takes into account the highest degrees each parent holds, can better predict a student’s academic readiness than using their first-generation status, racial/ethnic background, high school type, and fee waiver eligibility combined, the brief says.

Who’s considered a first-gen student?

Most colleges currently define “first-generation college student” using criteria outlined in a 1980 federal law: a person whose parents have not completed a bachelor’s degree. This includes students whose parents attended college but did not graduate and those whose parents have earned an associate degree. In academic year 2015-16, 56% of undergraduate students at U.S. colleges and universities had parents who did not hold a four-year degree, according to data from NASPA-Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education. 

Other colleges use different definitions, and view a first-generation student as anyone whose parents never attended college or whose parents attained a four-year degree in another country.

“It would be great if everyone could align on one definition for first generation,” Brian Heseung Kim, director of data-science research and analytics at Common App and principal author of the report, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education. “The reality is that different contexts kind of require different identification methods.”

Accounting for other factors

A clearer, more uniform definition may eliminate confusion around the first-generation designation, but more granular details about parents’ education could reveal important information about the kinds of familial and economic support students have as they pursue a college education.

A little under one-third of students who said their parents each have an associate degree were eligible for a Common App fee waiver, which is given to students from low-income families, the brief says. However, more than 80% of students who reported having only one parent who never attended are eligible. Both groups are first-generation students, depending on the definition, but the second group is more than twice as likely to be from low-income households.

Looking at the highest degree a parent has attained could provide even more insight into a student’s academic preparedness. Comparing a student with two parents who earned doctoral degrees to a student who has one parent with a doctoral degree and another who did not attend college “can sometimes look just as different from one another as first-generation and continuing-generation students do on average,” despite neither student generally being considered first-generation, the brief explains.

Keeping complexity in mind

A first-generation student designation remains an important way of understanding students’ needs, but colleges should focus on the complexity of first-generation status and be transparent about how they define it so that students understand the supportive programs available to them. Furthermore, first-generation status should be one of several characteristics colleges measure to evaluate students’ needs, depending on an institution’s specific goals. 

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