ERIC Identifier: ED351079
Publication Date: 1992-11-00
Author: Hsiao, Karin Petersen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Junior Colleges Los Angeles CA.
First-Generation College Students. ERIC Digest.
First-generation students -- students who are the first in their families to
attend a postsecondary institution -- are an increasingly significant force in
higher education. Although few American colleges or universities keep precise
statistics on the number of first-generation students enrolled, there is general
agreement that those numbers are growing as a college degree becomes a
prerequisite for more and more jobs (London, 1992). These "new students" to
higher education often face unique challenges in their quest for a degree;
conflicting obligations, false expectations, and lack of preparation or support
are among the factors that may hinder their success.
Community colleges have always considered first-generation students -- who
tend to be from working class families, or to be ethnic minorities, women or
adults -- a primary clientele (Padron, 1992). Indeed, a disproportionately large
number of these students are concentrated in community colleges (London, 1992).
This digest presents an overview of the obstacles that frequently stand between
first-generation students and a postsecondary degree, and the ways in which
community colleges are working to help them overcome those obstacles.
STRADDLING TWO CULTURES
One of the greatest challenges
facing first-generation students in pursuit of a college education is their
position on the margin of two cultures -- that of their friends and family and
that of their college community (London, 1992). While going to college may be
seen as a rite of passage for any student, it marks a significant separation
from the past for those who are the first in their families to do so. Parents,
siblings, and friends who have no experience of college or its rewards may be
non-supportive or even obstructionist. This is particularly a problem for
traditional-age students who still live at home -- they may not have or be able
to create a designated place or time to study at home, and may be criticized for
devoting time to school rather than family responsibilities (Padron, 1992).
Particularly as they begin to take on the symbols of the college culture -- be
it style of dress, taste in music, or range of vocabulary -- first-generation
students often sense displeasure on the part of acquaintances, and feel an
uncomfortable separation from the culture in which they grew up. Such tensions
frequently require the student to "renegotiate relationships" with friends and
relatives, something which is "not always done easily or with a happy ending" (London, 1992).
Even in the absence of resistance at home, first-generation students face
numerous challenges in their attempt to move from the culture of home to the
culture of higher education. In interviews with 107 minority students who had
achieved baccalaureate degrees, Richardson and Skinner (1992) found that
first-generation students who attended community colleges typically attended
part-time and were more likely than their classmates to have significant work
and family responsibilities. They fit school in around their other activities,
spending relatively little time on campus. "For these students, being a college
student was just one, and often not the most important, of many roles"
(Richardson and Skinner, 1992). First-generation adult students, who typically
receive more emotional support for their academic endeavors than do their
younger classmates, are even more likely to have conflicting obligations
LACK OF PREPARATION
Added to the challenges of living on
the margin of two cultures is the knowledge of many first-generation students
that they are less well prepared for college life than are their classmates who
come from college-educated families. In addition to inadequate academic
backgrounds, students interviewed by Richardson and Skinner (1992) cited lack of
experience with or knowledge of time-management, the economic realities of
college life, and the impersonal, bureaucratic nature of institutions of higher
education as obstacles to getting a degree. According to Dr. Castell Bryant,
dean of students at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus, a large
percentage of first-generation students are intimidated by the educational
system, and do not understand when it can be flexible and when it cannot
(Padron, 1992). They "frequently described their first exposure to the campus as
a shock that took them years to overcome" (Richardson and Skinner, 1992).
STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS
There are many ways in which
institutions of higher education can assist first-generation students in their
pursuit of a college degree. Strategies implemented to recruit and retain
minority students -- specialized outreach, tutoring and mentoring programs, for
example -- frequently work for first-generation students as well (Padron, 1992).
The Wolfson campus of Miami-Dade Community College (M-DCC) aggressively recruits
students who otherwise might not attend college, including first-generation
minorities, through such efforts as the Black Student Recruitment Program and
the InterAmerican Center's outreach program in Miami's Little Havana. M-DCC's
Jump Start Program targets students who have high test scores and grade point
averages, but who have expressed little interest in postsecondary education
Bridge programs, which create a link between students' high school and
postsecondary education experiences, are an effective way to help
first-generation students overcome a lack of college preparation. At LaGuardia
Community College, a branch of The City University of New York, a Middle College
exposes students to the college culture by bringing them to the campus for
classes; small classes and attentive teachers provide a more college-like
experience than the students typically get at local high schools. The
International High School applies the same model to help prepare recent
immigrants with limited English proficiency for college-level work (Chaffee,
1992). Similarly, Miami-Dade's Wolfson campus operates a Summer Institute, a
free support services program which provides instruction in study skills and
basic computer use (Padron, 1992).
The effort to help first-generation students succeed does not end once they
are admitted to a college. Many of the successful first-generation students
interviewed by Richardson and Skinner (1992) felt they "never could have made
it" without the help of academic support programs and services provided by their
At Miami-Dade, one such program identifies high-risk students during the
admissions process and requires them to take a college orientation course. The
course teaches the students some of the practical skills required to succeed at
college and familiarizes them with college procedures and available support
services. In addition, all classes at the Wolfson campus participate in the
Academic Alert system, which identifies students who are showing weak academic
progress at mid-term. As part of the system, individualized letters are sent to
the students, and counselors call them at home to encourage them to improve
their academic standing (Padron, 1992). At LaGuardia, Critical Thinking and
Speech Communication programs are specifically intended to help students develop
skills necessary for academic and career success (Chaffee, 1992).
Successful minority students identified peer support as an important factor
in their academic achievement; they noted, however, that such support groups
were most likely to develop among students from college-educated families. In
addition, first-generation minority students expressed a need to "scale down"
the physical dimensions of the college experience, "to find places to study,
meet friends, or seek support ... spaces that provided some measure of
'comfortability'. "Supportive academic department offices, advising services,
programs or courses that allow for more personal interaction with faculty, or
institutionally established, minority-focused networking groups can all serve to
reduce the physical dimensions of the students' college experiences (Richardson
and Skinner, 1992).
First-generation adult students --
who are less likely to suffer from the culture shock of entering the college
community, but who are more likely to be juggling conflicting responsibilities
-- require somewhat different support mechanisms if they are to succeed in an
academic setting. Zwerling (1992) argues, for instance, that teaching methods
which are based on rote learning are not useful to adults who "enroll in large
part to search for meaning and redefinition." A pedagogy that emphasizes
critical and analytical thinking is likely to be far more relevant to them. In
addition, colleges should rethink the curriculum, organizing requirements into
"coherent clusters of interdisciplinary courses that center around themes," and
offering them in organized blocks of time so that adults can more easily fit
their academic activities into an already busy schedule. (Zwerling, 1992).
First-generation students -- be they recent
immigrants, members of ethnic minority or working-class families, or adults
finally going back to school to get that degree they always wanted -- face a
daunting array of challenges in their pursuit of a postsecondary education. In
order for this high-risk group to succeed in their academic endeavors, colleges
must provide a range of programs and services to counteract the weaknesses many
of them bring to higher education and to help them overcome the obstacles they
face once they enroll.
This digest was drawn from FIRST GENERATION
STUDENTS: CONFRONTING THE CULTURAL ISSUES, New Directions for Community
Colleges, Number 80, edited by L. Steven Zwerling and Howard London; published
in December 1992. The cited articles include: "Transforming Educational Dreams
Into Educational Reality," by John Chaffee, Ph.D.; "Transformations: Cultural
Challenges Faced by First Generation Students," by Howard B. London; "The
Challenge of First-Generation Students: A Miami-Dade Perspective," by Eduardo J.
Padron; "Helping First-Generation Minority Students Achieve Degrees," by Richard
C. Richardson, Jr., and Elizabeth Fisk Skinner; and "First-Generation Adult
Students: In Search of Safe Havens," by L. Steven Zwerling.