Who is considered a ‘first-generation’ college student?

As part of the push to expand college access and improve social mobility among students from underserved communities, colleges and policymakers are increasingly focused on supporting the success of “first-generation” college students. However, there is no standard definition for the designation, and differing criteria can have a significant impact on who is considered a first-gen student and the programmatic resources they receive, according to a new brief from the Common Application, a platform students use to apply to over 1,000 member colleges and universities. The brief is the first of three analyses looking at first-gen status. 

Related: ‘For the first time in the classroom, I felt seen’: Georgetown graduate reflects on leaving behind a legacy for first-gen students >

The Common App defines a first-generation student as one whose parents do not hold a bachelor’s degree or, in the case of a student living with and being supported by one parent, whose parent has not completed a bachelor’s degree, a definition stemming from the 1998 Higher Education Act Amendments.

Some colleges, meanwhile, designate first-gen students as those whose parents never enrolled in college; others say the group could also include students whose parents attended college in other countries and thus have limited exposure to U.S. higher education. Brown University says, “we think of it more as any student who may self-identify as not having prior exposure to or knowledge of navigating higher institutions such as Brown and may need additional resources.”

This variation “confuses a lot of people, and they’re right to be confused,” Brian Heseung Kim, director of data science, research, and analytics at the Common Application and the lead author of the new brief, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Related: ‘It felt like Georgetown was built for us’: First-gen student reflects on his GSP experience >

Minor variations, significant impacts

Small changes in how schools define first-gen status can have a significant impact on the number of students who identify with the designation, the brief explains. During the 2022-23 admissions cycle, 127,000 fewer students (or 11% of all domestic applicants) were considered first-gen when schools defined it as having parents with no college attendance, rather than having parents who don’t hold a bachelor’s degree.

Consideration of when parents earned their degree is another dimension. During the 2022 admissions cycle, 6% of domestic applicants had parents who received a bachelor’s degree after a student was born. “This is noteworthy,” the brief says, “because students in these circumstances may not experience the same longer-term benefits of financial stability and educational support from their parents as students whose parents obtained their degrees comparatively earlier in their family’s timeline.”

Another 12% of applicants in the 2022 admissions cycle reported having limited information about one or both parents’ degree attainment, making it difficult not only to identify who is a first-gen student but also to determine “whether closeness and exposure between students and parents plays a role in the benefits implied by having a parent with a college degree,” the brief says.

Although the Common App brief does not argue in favor of one definition over another, it calls for more clarity. “When building programs and policies, colleges and other organizations should be clear about who they are trying to identify with the phrase ‘first-generation’ and why,” the brief explains.

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