Barriers to First Generation College Students


Barriersto First Generation College Students

Barriersto First Generation College Students

Obtainingcollege education has become one of the most fundamental aspects ofthe contemporary human society. This may have been triggered by theimmense research that has supported the notion that the quality oflife of an individual is directly tied to the level of education thathe or she has attained. This has pushed individuals to strive formore education in varied areas of study. Indeed, it is wellacknowledged that attendance of college has become considerably moreof a necessity and less of a privilege in the modern day workforce.The cultural shift comes as a reflection of the goal of subsequentgovernments to have high numbers of college graduates so as toeliminate illiteracy. This push, however, has resulted in an influxof a category of students who may not have been a component ofcollege scenes some few years back. It is noted that the expansion ofoptions in the community college level and the increased availabilityof online courses has allowed for non-traditional students to earncollege education and degrees, as well as a better living. Anincreasing demographic in college graduation and attendance remainsthe first generation students.

Theterm first generation student has persistently evolved since itscoining in 1982, with the increase in the research that is carriedout on first-generation populations. Indeed, the definition that iscommonly used today was derived from the coined definitions andunderlines to students who form the first in their families tocomplete college education (Cushman, 2006). Of particular note is thefact that the family members may even be concurrently attending orhave attended but are yet to complete wither bachelor’s orassociate degree.

Today,there exists overwhelming research that shows that the population offirst generation students makes up close to 40% of the collegepopulation in the United States. However, the population isdistinctive in its difference from the conventional college studentpopulation for which a large number of American colleges were built.Scholars have particularly acknowledged that the first-generationstudents’ profile may differ quite a bit from that of theconventional college student populations since these students have ahigh likelihood for being from low-income backgrounds, as well asminority groups (Cushman, 2006). This has necessitated that scholarsand academicians offer academic advising, whose prime component isthe comprehension of this population, as well as the challenges thata large number of them face.

Astudy carried out in 2010 by the Department of Education indicatedthat half of the college population was composed of first generationstudents, whose parents never received education above high schooldiploma. This research supported the notion that minorities andindividuals from low income families make up a large proportion offirst generation students. Indeed, it was shown that minority groupsformed the largest proportion of students whose parents only attainedhigh school education or less, including 48.5% of Hispanic and Latinostudents and 45% of African Americans or Black students. Parents ofstudents who were of Asian descent formed 32%, Native Americans at35%, while Caucasian students had only 28% as first generationcollege students. As much as an education is seen as an advantage inthejob marketplace, degrees alone would never be an automaticguarantee to better pay and opportunities. To ensure that theseindividuals optimally succeed in their careers, it is imperative thattheir specific needs are addressed beyond the things that are writtenin their textbooks.

Itis noteworthy that first-generation college students face a number ofchallenges both in their academic and social lives within theacademic institutions. One of the major challenges that are faced bythis category of students relates to life and academic skills.Scholars have underlined the fact that first generation students are,more often than not, less academically prepared compared tonon-first-generation students, not to mention that they incorporatean elevated or increased risk for academic failure (Walpole, 2007).Such students have the tendency to require remedial support inreading and mathematics so as to be at the college level work inthose fields. In addition, the standardized test scores including SATand ACT scores are usually lower compared to those of their non-firstgeneration peers, as is the case for their high school grade-pointaverage. Apart from the academic skills these students have animmense challenge with regard to their life skills. Indeed, it hasbeen noted that they may be struggling with the management of theirtime, test taking, and even studying as a result of their otherresponsibilities to their families (Walpole, 2007). On the same note,these students face immense barriers or challenges from theirfinancial obligations. A large proportion of research carried out onthis population underlines the fact that they are usually fromfamilies that have lower incomes as compared to non-first-generationstudents. This has a bearing on their retention rates. Indeed,college payment comes as a hindrance considering that low-incomefamilies have considerably less resources to contribute to theircollege-going or college bound family members. This, therefore,necessitates that first generation students balance with full-timeschool attendance, or even full-time work and part time schoolattendance (Terenzini et al, 2001). The financial dependencypertaining to family members becomes evident in instances where thestudents feel that they are incapable of making any financialcontribution to their homes as a result of their new commitment tohigher education. This is worsened by the fact that the families areoften confused regarding the application process for federalfinancial aid, which allows for availability of scholarships orgrants. The complexity of the application and the fact that itrequires comprehensive tax and income data alongside other personalinformation from both the parents and the students comes as animmense challenge to the students (Terenzini et al, 2001).

Inaddition, scholars have noted that a large number of students wholikely first-generation college grads, particularly from the lowerincome homes, are faced by distinctive challenges pertaining tosuccessful enrollment into college, as well as persistence in theacademic institution. It is noteworthy that the percentage of suchstudents who start college immediately after completing their highschool stands at 55%, which is quite low when compared to the 84% forindividuals from high-income families (Terenzini et al, 2001).Indeed, studies have shown that the rate at which first generation,low socioeconomic status students attain baccalaureate stands at 12%compared to the 73% for individuals from high income families(Terenzini et al, 2001). This disparity may be explained by a numberof issues. Apart from the obvious challenge emanating from financialconstraints that make the employment of students take up their studytime, such students also come from families whose parents did not goto college, in which case they have to learn the most appropriate wayfor navigating in the new cultural arena (Terenzini et al, 2001).First, it is imperative that they increase their awareness pertainingto the fundamental logistics pertaining to college, which may includethe entrance requirements, choices of majors, application proceduresfor financial aid, as well as course expectations. Secondly, suchstudents would have to adapt to new and “basically” middle classcultural setting. Scholars have also noted that the task is made evenmore daunting by the fact that the first-generation students arerequired to complete the two tasks with little or no support fromtheir families (Cushman, 2006). Even worse is the fact that theindividuals may realize that the adaptation process causes rifts intheir own families.

Oneof the key challenges to first generation students revolves aroundawareness and assistance from their own families. It has well beenacknowledged that parental involvement plays a fundamental role inthe academic advancement of any student. A large number of middleclass students depend on their parents for guidance regarding collegepreparations. Indeed, parents offer assistance in learning about, aswell as selecting a major, choosing and visiting a college, as wellas filling out the application forms (Stebleton &amp Soria, 2012).The deficiency of college experienced parents means that the firstgeneration students have a high likelihood for being deficient ofknowledge pertaining to the application process and collegepreparation process. Indeed, it is noted that first generationstudents who actually manage to successfully get into or enroll incollege would have already surmounted an immense barrier.Nevertheless, they would continue facing distinctive challenges evenafter being enrolled. A large number of students may not have thesupport of their family members, particularly considering that theirparents may not have full comprehension of the educational pursuitsthat the first-generational students have (Stebleton &amp Soria,2012). Research shows that a large number of first generationstudents usually have to face criticism from their family membersrather than being praised for continuing with their education.Indeed, friends and family members who failed to attainpost-secondary degree may see higher education as costly andunnecessary, a luxury, and in some instances, an irresponsiblechoice.

Moreover,there is the problem of adaptation to the college life for firstgeneration students. Of course, it is well acknowledged that collegecomes off as a gateway to the middleclass, in which case the bluecollar raised students are forced to adapt to a completely newcultural environment. Indeed a large number of first generationstudents often feel out of place when in college (McCarron et al,2006). This may be as a result of a combination of factors includingthe deficiency of knowledge pertaining to the campus values, campusenvironment, access to financial and human resources, as well asfamiliarity with the general functioning and terminology used in thehigher education settings. All these factors contribute to theculture should with which first generation students would have tograpple. There are numerous instances where first generation studentshave a feeling that they are cultural outsiders or imposters as aresult of the differences between the setting of the academicinstitutions that they attend and the locations in which they grewand to which they have become accustomed. Scholars have determinedthat there is a high likelihood for first-generation working classstudents to leave higher education institutions extremely early. Theeventual withdrawal resulted from a number of reasons, key amongwhich included failure to fit in, inability to relate to the dominantgroup and what is termed as failure to “feel the educationinstitution” (Terenzini et al, 2001). Indeed, it has beenacknowledged that the first generations students usually feel afraidor even isolated in the college settings, experience varieddifficulties in making friends, feel like outsiders, are extremelyaware of the fact that they speak differently from other people, andopine that the educational institutions do not respect or evencomprehend their experience (Stebleton &amp Soria, 2012). Theadaptation to an entirely new cultural setting comes as an additionto the tasks pertaining to learning the ropes such as the manner inwhich they should interact with the professors, scheduling, as wellas the expectations of the course works. As much as all new collegestudents come across adjustment challenges, students who do not havethe support of their parents or who do not borrow from theexperiences of their parents in similar circumstances are forced toplay catch-up (Terenzini et al, 2001).

Moreover,there is the alienation challenge that such students would face inthe new environments. Upon the acclimation of the students to acompletely new collection of cultural norms, it is understood thatthere would be an impact in instances where interacting with membersof the family and their friends who are yet to have gone via the sameprocess. First generation college enrollees have been termed byscholars as “straddlers” since they have to balance between boththe white collar and blue collar world. Indeed, these studentsexperience fundamental problems emanating from their living in twovastly varying worlds at the same time without being fully acceptedin either of them (McCarron et al, 2006). These students have oftenreported strained relationships with friends and family particularlythose who never attended higher education institutions since thecollege-goers are seen as altering and creating a divide fromindividuals who did not attend such institutions. Indeed, it is notedthat individuals who eventually succeed in their academics may evenfeel bad about their achievements. In support of this notion, otherscholars have described what they call “survivor guilt” whichfirst generation students feel when they are making frantic effortsto make it since they often think of the less fortunate familymembers and friends (Terenzini et al, 2001). It is noteworthy thatsuch sense of guilt may hold the achievers back. There exists immenseevidence pertaining to the fact that first generation collegestudents come across distinctive challenges as they pursue thecollege degrees (McCarron et al, 2006). After overcoming the previoushurdles, a large number of them get into the campus only to have toface an additional challenge pertaining to navigation of theuncharted waters in an entirely new cultural arena with little or noassistance or support from their families. Scholars have particularlyunderlined the idea that getting into the middle class maynecessitate making some changes, which would reduce family cohesionwhile also challenging the belief system of an individual (McCarronet al, 2006).

Inconclusion, the population of first-generation students has beenincreasing in the recent times as a result of the recognition of itspositive effects on quality of life. However, there are immensechallenges to their attendance in colleges including lack of support,deficiency of financial resources, which makes them work whilestudying and, therefore, more likely to fail in academics, as well asfailure to adjust appropriately. This necessitates that newstrategies are used in assisting them measure up or be on the samepedestal with non-first generation students.


Cushman,K. (2006).&nbspFirstin the family: Advice about college from first-generation students.Providence, RI: Next Generation Press.

McCarron,G. P, Inkelas, K &amp Kurotsuchi, K (2006). “The Gap BetweenEducational Aspirations and Attainment for First Generation CollegeStudents and the Role of Parental Involvement.” Journalof College Student Development47 (5): 534-549.

Stebleton,M.J. &amp Soria,K.M. (2012). Breaking down Barriers: AcademicObstacles of First-Generation Students at Research Universities.LearningAssistance Review17(2), 7-20.

Terenzini,P. T., Cabrera, A.F &amp Bernal, E.M (2001). SwimmingAgainst the Tide: The Poor in American Higher Education.Princeton, NJ: College Board

Walpole,M (2007). “Economically and Educationally Challenged Students inHigher Education: Access to Outcomes.” ASHEHigher Education Report33 (3)