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Conquering College: Revisiting the Challenges Faced by First-Generation College Students

July 2012, Volume 15, Number 7

By Timothy L.-Y. Wilson, Rebecca Andrews, and Christine Foley

At a time when economic realities have helped many people recognize the benefit of postsecondary education and training, more and more students who traditionally would not have pursued a college education are enrolling on campuses across the country. This phenomenon enables students to realize their dreams, but it can also mean an increase in the number of students who are not fully prepared for the college experience. While there may be many reasons why students arrive at college without the skills necessary to succeed, for some institutions, a significant percentage of these students are the first in their family to attend college. First-generation college students (FGCS) present distinct challenges to higher education institutions, challenges that can be overcome by providing these students with information and support they may need to succeed and by ensuring that faculty and staff are aware of the obstacles many of these students face on their college journey.

The Students

Many non-first-generation college students already know the rules of the college game (Lundberg, 2007), but first-generation college students must learn the system while on the field of play. They can face challenges in their academic life as well as in their personal and home life.

Academic Issues. Many FGCS believe that students who come from families where parents have college experience also come from a background of wealth and privilege and a family tradition of higher education. While this may be the case for some students, it is more likely that these peers have the construct, via their parents, of the systemic components with which to anticipate problem areas and take action to ensure they have a successful college experience (Cushman 2007). FGCS often have little understanding of what to expect in college, and their high school experience does not prepare them to succeed in college (Hsiao, 1992). They must learn course material while deciphering the educational process, putting further burdens on what is often limited time and capabilities (Hicks 1992). The process also presents other challenges, such as procedures for adding and dropping a class, forming and attending study groups, and applying for financial aid (Giancola et al. 2009).

Time-management Issues. Learning how to be a college student is a significant component of the educational experience. With additional freedoms such as deciding when to eat, sleep, study, attend class, and relax, students learn how to prioritize their needs and to make appropriate choices. Hsiao (1992) notes that these productive decisions require learners first to master time-management skills, evident with class assignments as students refine their levels of self-regulation to successfully complete their academic requirements (Williams and Hellman, 2004).

Financial Issues. For many students, including many FGCS, obtaining the funds required to support education is an issue that predicates all others. Funds may be available to help these students afford their higher education, but finding and accessing these funds can be a daunting task. After receiving financial aid, students face determining how best to manage this money to successfully complete their program. When students receive cash refunds for aid that goes beyond tuition and fees, they then have the sometimes challenging choice of using the money for educational purposes such as course materials or for other pursuits. For example, being a college student requires that a large block of time be spent in class or class-related activities, and less time spent at work translates into less money to contribute to the family (Payne, 2007). Indeed, whether by necessity or by choice, FGCS usually work more hours per week at a job than other students (Drozd, 2008). Even a part-time job can put a strain on academic endeavors as scheduling classes becomes more difficult. With those employed full time, the challenges can be even greater.

The Families

Attitudes. Higher education funding is often not the only family issue FGCS must overcome. In some cases, parents may have a low opinion of education, believing a college degree is not necessary since they have managed without one. Some parents’ attitudes about education may be based solely on their experiences with the public schools, resulting in the idea that higher education, including books, fees, and tuition, should be free. Priebe, Ross and Low (2008) noted that parents of FGCS place a lower value on postsecondary education and increased emphasis on priorities such as family and work.

According to Hsiao (1992), family and friends may be non-supportive or obstructive. Some students with family responsibilities are sabotaged by family members. For example, one student’s mother volunteered to provide child care for the student’s three children only if the student got a job; the mother refused to take care of the children when the student attended classes. In other instances, spouses of students have withheld money for books or child care. With little or no support at home, these students often face insurmountable difficulties in completing assignments.

Lack of Postsecondary Experience. Many parents with no postsecondary education may have no intentions of hampering the higher educational aspirations of their students. Their lack of familiarity with the requirements and workings of postsecondary systems may make them unable to provide certain kinds of educational, vocational, or personal guidance their college students need. FGCS need guidance in educational and vocational matters such as when and how to study and what courses or professions to pursue, and in personal matters such as transferring or developing attitudes, values, and problem-solving skills that help ensure college success. This can result in communication issues with parents, siblings, and other family members: Students are unable to share their academic experiences fully and parents are unable to communicate their values and knowledge even though they and other family members may pressure the student to be “the one who makes it” or to be “different” (Corea, 2009).

Choy (2001) noted that academic preparation for college varied according to parents’ education. If the parents did not go to college, then the students tended to have lower educational expectations than their peers whose parents did obtain postsecondary training or a degree. Choy (2001) stated that only 53% of FGCS expected to attain a college degree as compared to 90% of the students whose parents had a college degree.

Peers and the College Community

The Campus Community. Murphy and Hicks (2006) suggest that FGCS tend to spend less time socializing with their college peers than do those who come from families where parents have college experience, and Hudley et al. (2009) report that FGCS tend to spend less time talking to their instructors outside class than students who are more familiar with the higher educational process. Lacking the experiences and understanding of the academic system, FGCS do not realize that they have access to their instructors, that teachers are there to help them, and that the course instructor's role involves both teaching curricular content and teaching students to be successful.

Purpose of Higher Education. Many FGCS see a college degree as a pathway to achieving advancement, financial means, and support for their families (Corea, 2009). Spronken-Smith et al. (2009) found that FGCS were more likely to see the purpose of getting an education as obtaining qualification or preparation for a specific job as opposed to developing life skills and learning how to think or grow as individuals. Although this may be the primary purpose for higher education training, it is ultimately a narrow view of what a higher education provides. Exacerbating this issue, these students often arrive at college with a lack of academic preparation as well as a lack of awareness that this grounding is important.

Lack of Preparation. Since many FGCS do not initially plan to enter college, the necessary academic foundation may not have been a part of their high school experience. First-year programs and college success skill courses attempt to bring a wide variety of practical information to students, but these students often have deficits in reading, writing, math, and communication skills and must “catch up” before launching into the college curriculum. In his 2008 study, Drozd indicated that FGCS had lower SAT math and verbal scores as well as lower high school grade point averages. A longitudinal study by Terenzini et al. (1995) reported that non-FGCS made greater net gains in reading than FGCS, and Choy (2001) found that “35% of FGCS were in the lowest quartile as opposed to 13% of their peers with college educated parents” (9). Vuong, Brown-Welty, and Tracz (2010) succinctly indicated that FGCS did not perform as well academically as students with parents who attended college. This unpreparedness is reflected in the loss of retention as found in Riehl’s (1994) data has suggested that FGCS are more likely to drop out during their first semester and have lower first-semester grades than students with at least one college-educated parent.

Self-perception. The studies of Penrose (2002) indicated that the self-perceptions of FGCS are critically important in helping these students develop a positive identity in the academic community. A lack of preparedness for college can be damaging when students must successfully complete remedial classes before they are able to enroll in college-level, credit-bearing courses. Academic unpreparedness often starts a cycle of underachievement as FGCS can feel marginalized and lose confidence in their academic abilities. Without adequate support to end the cycle, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—“I knew I couldn’t to this”—may be realized.

The Role of Tenacity and Pride

Despite the challenges FGCS must overcome in order to persist and succeed, these students possess attributes that can lead to success. Donavan and Johnson (2005) found a consistent theme with first-generation students: They express a great sense of pride. With perseverance in this unfamiliar institution, and as they became familiar with the college process, they realized a sense of accomplishment. The desire to be the first in their family to obtain an education beyond high school is perceived as a major positive characteristic. With all the obstacles on their path through higher education, students considered it a privilege and a responsibility to adapt and maneuver through the system. Many expressed the hope that other family members would see their success and follow in their footsteps. They desire to be the role model for other family members and certainly for their children.


Many first-generation college students face an overwhelming number of challenges when they start college. For many, the greatest difficulty is a lack of preparedness on almost every level. Without the modeling that benefits many of their peers, they do not learn early what it takes to succeed at the college level, nor do they have ready access to information that is essential for success in the academic world. In many cases, they are unaware of how dramatically their lives must change—with less social time and more study time—to take advantage of college.

Without intervention or assistance before enrolling in postsecondary institutions, FGCS face a number of possible negative outcomes. Frustration, for example, can magnify obstacles and worsen situations, and poor results may cause a student to feel inferior or out of place. Educational institutions must recognize this demographic group and structure institutional procedures and requirements to be supportive of these students. One approach is for higher education institutions to become more visible in high schools to help these students, well in advance of high school graduation, acquire the knowledge and skills to survive and thrive in college. Complementing high school outreach with supportive college admissions, registration, financial aid, orientation, and student success programs further ensures that these courageous first-generation college students complete their studies and reach their goal of becoming first-generation college graduates.


Choy, S. P. (2001). “Students Whose Parents Did Not Go to College: Postsecondary Access, Persistence, and Attainment.” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/2001126.pdf

Corea, Y. (2009). “Exploring the Meaning of ‘Higher Education’ Among First-Generation College Students.” ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Cushman, K. (2007). “Facing the Culture Shock of College.” Educational Leadership 64(7), 44-47.

Donovan, J., & Johnson, L. (2005). “Exploring the Experiences of First-Generation, Multiethnic Undergraduate College Students.” Journal of Student Affairs, XIV.

Drozd, B. L. (2008). “Comparisons of First-Generation and Non-First-Generation College Students on Academic and Psychosocial Measures.” University of Northern Colorado.

Giancola, J. K., Munz, D. C., & Trares, S. (2009). “First-Versus Continuing-Generation Adult Students on College Perceptions: Are Differences Actually Because of Demographic Variance?” SAGE Journals Online.

Hicks, R. (2009). “I’ll Break His Goddamned Hands.” Academe 95(3): 16-18.

Hsiao, Karin Petersen. (1992) “First-Generation College Students.” ED ED351079

Hudley, Cynthia, et al. (2009) “College Freshmen’s Perceptions of Their High School Experiences.” Journal of Advanced Academics 20.3. Prufrock.

Lundberg, Carol A. (2007) “A Bleacher-Seat View of Cultural Capital: How Bad Is a Dented Bat?” About Campus 11.6.

Murphy, Catrina G. and Terence Hicks. (2006). “Academic Characteristics among First-Generation College Students.” College Quarterly 9.2.

Payne, Khalilah. (2007). “First-Generation College Students: Their Challenges and the Advising Strategies That Can Help.” The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal.

Priebe, Lisa C., Tamra L. Ross, and Karl W. Low. (2008). “Exploring the Role of Distance Education in Fostering Equitable University Access for First-Generation Students: A Phenomenological Survey.” Athabasca University.

Penrose, Ann M. (2002). “Academic Literacy Perceptions and Performance: Comparing First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students.” Research in the Teaching of English 36.4: 437-61.

Riehl, Richard J. (1994). “The Academic Preparation, Aspirations, and First-Year Performance of First-Generation Students.” College and University 70 (1994): 14-19.

Spronken-Smith, R., Bond, C., Buissink-Smith, N., and Grigg, G. (2009). Millennium Graduates' Orientations to Higher Education. College Student Journal 43.2. ISSN 0146-3934.

Terenzini, Patrick T. (1995). “First-Generation College Students: Characteristics, Experiences, And Cognitive Development.” AIR 1995

Vuong, Mui, Sharon Brown-Welty, and Susan Tracz. (2010). “The Effects of Self-Efficacy On Academic Success of First-Generation College Sophomore Students.” Journal of College Student Development 51.1.

Williams, Peter E., and Chan M. Hellman. (2004). “Differences in Self-Regulation for Online Learning Between First- and Second- Generation College Students.” Research in Higher Education 45.1.

Timothy L.-Y. Wilson is Professor of Education at Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College; Rebecca Andrews is English/Reading Instructor and Christine Foley is Biology Instructor at Southwest Texas Junior College, in Texas.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 07/12/2012 at 10:24 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -