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A New Way to Look at First Generation Students

By: TxCAN   |   July 2022

We tend to assume that all first-generation students fit the same mold, but in a study conducted by the National Science Foundation we have found that is not always the case. This post will showcase how the National Science Foundation defines the varying levels of first-generationness and how the differentiation can be used to enhance college advising practices. Read to learn how you can intentionally plan out your college access activities this year to support all levels of first-generation students.

The federal government defines a first generation student as the following:  

“An individual both of whose parents did not COMPLETE a baccalaureate degree”  

The key word is “complete”. When it comes to supporting students in the college admissions process, a student who is the first in their immediate and extended family to attend college will not need the same level of intervention as a student who has a parent who previously attended college but did not complete their degree. Let’s take a closer look into the different levels of first-generation students as determined by a study conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

  • Level 0: One or both parents graduated from college (not considered first generation). 
  • Level 1: Parents or guardians attended some college (but did not complete). 
  • Level 2: Siblings attended or completed college; parents did not attend. 
  • Level 3: Extended family (grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins) attended or completed college; parents or siblings did not. 
  • Level 4: No one in immediate or extended family attended or completed college. 

This is a very diverse group of students being placed into one giant group labeled “first generation”. It’s time to be more intentional about the support and interventions our institutions can offer these different types of “first generation” students. Below you will find a summary of the NSF’s study’s findings and our suggestions to support “first generation” students at their distinct levels as the new academic year begins.  

Determine Your Levels

Does your school collect first generation data on your students? The answer is most likely, yes. But does that data also identify the level of first generation? The NSF study suggests you add a question to a widely used survey to better identify the level of first-generation. The earlier you collect the data the better (I.e. freshman year and/or at time of enrollment). School enrollment paperwork often asks students about their parent’s education level. We suggest changing the question verbiage to better identify a student’s level of first generation. See example below.  

Choose the statement that most applies to you:  

  • No one in my immediate family has attended college. I will be the first in my family. 
  • At least one of my parents attended and graduated college. 
  • At least one of my siblings attends college or has graduated from college; my parents did not 
  • One or both of my parents attended college but did not graduate. 
  • Extended family (grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins) attended or completed  college; my parents or siblings did not 

Exposure Matters

Some of the primary reasons all levels of first-generation students entered STEM, according to the NSF study, was due to high school teachers, classes, and clubs. Is there a career fair on your school’s calendar for the upcoming school year? If there is not, reach out to the Texas Workforce Commision (TWC) for help planning one. The TWC can also send an Education Outreach/Workforce Specialists to your school to give a career presentation.   

In addition, we recommend school administrators, teachers, and counselors promote or sponsor extracurricular clubs that will further expose students to a variety of careers, especially careers thriving in the local labor market.  

Family Programming

Students who have parents who attended some college will not need as much individualized support and counseling. The study found that parents were far more influential for continuing-generation students (Level 0). Consider assigning someone to own the creation of a parent newsletter or host a parent night to discuss relevant and recent admission news and trends.  It is vital to educate parents with the continually shifting admissions landscape so that they can best guide their students. 

Here is an example of a template you could use to design a school newsletter. This newsletter can be downloaded and shared virtually via any mass communication system your school currently uses. If you do not have the capacity to create a school newsletter consider sharing ADVi with families. ADVi is a chatbot, who is available 24/7, designed to answer questions about the college admissions process. While ADVi is a tool designed for students, the reminders it provides could prompt parents to follow up with their student and make sure they are on track. 

Targeted Advising

Level 4 students are the first in their immediate and extended family to attend college. They are paving the way through unfamiliar territory. Level 2-4 students could benefit greatly from individualized counseling to navigate administrative barriers and financial aid questions. It would be valuable to connect these students to additional mentoring and college access organizations in your school or area. Every extra layer of support will help increase a student’s potential of persisting in college. Below is a list of community organizations to consider. 

Identify Thriving Colleges

 Let’s do our homework. What colleges provide special programming to support first generation students? What are their graduation rates for first generation students?  Do these colleges offer special support groups or peer mentors to first generation students? The answers to these questions can help us identify a list of “thriving” colleges to recommend to students when they are creating their college wishlist.  

Here are some resources that can help you answer these questions: 

  • Texas CREWS is an excellent resource available to the public to compare Texas public universities, majors, and career schools based on graduate wages, student loan levels, graduation rates and more.
  • Niche, College Scorecard, and Scholarshot are websites we suggest to research universities across the US.
  • The Center for First Generation Success is a great organization to connect with for additional research and resources.  

It should now be apparent that not all first-generation students are the same. They are a very diverse group of students who need different levels of support. As you begin to plan out your calendar of college access activities this year, think about how you can strategically plan to support all the different types of first-generation students.  

The Texas College Access Network (TxCAN) connects and supports college access initiatives across Texas, with the goal of increasing access to college and certificate programs.