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First-Generation College Students: An Institutional Priority

                 Higher education has been going through several changes in recent years. These include changes in admissions processes, a shift to online education platforms, new types of programs and degrees offered, and a more diverse student population. The National Center for Education Statistics (2023) highlights the increase in the number of students over the age of 25 enrolled in college. In recent years, first-generation college students have been the largest group enrolling in colleges, but they are often less prepared for the demands of higher education (Longwell-Grice et al., 2016; Nadworny, 2019; Newlin, 2021). Many first-generation college students focus on social mobility. Obtaining a college degree can enable students to work higher-paying jobs, access more career options, and earn more income over the course of their lives.

Because they may be underprepared for college-level coursework, first-generation college students are more likely to leave college before completing a degree. The Pew Research Center (2021) highlights that 70% of adults with a bachelor’s degree come from households in which at least one parent has a bachelor’s degree. In comparison, only 26% of individuals who do not have a college-educated parent complete a bachelor’s degree. First-generation college students are 71% more likely to leave college within their first year than their non-first-generation college student peers (Pratt et al., 2019).

Retention is an area of focus and concern for colleges and universities, specifically for first-generation college students. Students are more likely to leave college due to financial concerns, including living expenses and the cost of college tuition; a belief that they do not belong in college; family obligations; or lack of understanding of college and how to successfully complete a degree (Pratt et al., 2019; Salvatierra, 2022). Researchers have identified that access to support systems (e.g., parents, friends, faculty), involvement in college clubs or activities, and connections with institutional personnel (e.g., advisors) can significantly improve enrollment and retention in college for first-generation college students (Irlbeck et al., 2014).

As a result, higher education institutions, researchers, and professional organizations have focused on how to help first-generation college student be successful at college. Institutions of higher education have increased their focus on this group of students and how to support them in their degree progress. Researchers have also paid more attention to this student group and specialized in areas of retention, belongingness, career advancement, and motivation (Irlbeck et al., 2014; Longwell-Grice et al., 2016; Pratt et al, 2017). As the research about first-generation college students evolves, there is more to consider about the experiences of being a first-generation college student when compared to students with at least one parent who completed college. Research findings have led to opportunities to develop programs that support first-generation college students, both at the institutional level and professional organization level. Examples include the Center for First-Generation Student Success (a program of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the Suder Foundation), nonprofits (e.g., First Gen Support), and support programs at colleges (e.g., first-generation forums and dinners at commencement dedicated to first-generation college students). These partnerships can provide additional resources to first-generation college students in navigating the college experience.

To support first-generation college students, there are a few best practices that college faculty, staff, and administrators can implement to provide necessary guidance and support. The first is to find ways for students to connect with their institution during the application, enrollment, and attendance stages. This can be through arranging visits, providing information about college and the process, and making connections with faculty, staff, or students. The second is implementing frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) both in the classroom and in staff settings. Within the classroom, curriculum designed with the UDL framework can support the retention of first-generation college students in college (Ralph & Greenawalt, 2022). The UDL framework is focused on meeting the needs of diverse learners through multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression (Katz & Sokal, 2016). If faculty and staff implement these principles, they help minimize barriers to college entry, persistence, and completion. They also meet the needs of diverse learners.

A third best practice is fostering a community of care and a welcoming environment to increase a sense of belonging for first-generation college students and support their college journey (O’Keefe, 2013). Lastly, schools can support initiatives like First-Generation College Celebration Day on November 8. Events and opportunities to celebrate first-generation college students foster the development of a community of scholars (i.e., students will not feel alone), provide opportunities for discussion about first-generation experiences, and demonstrate community support.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some ways that colleges or universities can minimize barriers to entry for first-generation college students in the admissions process?
  2. What are examples of programs or initiatives that can celebrate first-generation college students?
  3. What are some of the considerations that colleges must make to support the academic success of first-generation college students?
  4. What are educational experiences or curriculum that educators can develop to support social mobility for first-generation college students?

Interested in related articles?

Check out "The Family Dynamics of First-Generation College Student Success" article here.


Pew Research Center. (2021). First-generation college graduates lag behind their peers on key economic outcomes.

Irlbeck, A., Akersm, B., & Jones. (2014). First-generation college students: Motivations and support systems. Journal of Agricultural Education, 55(2). Retrieved from:

Katz, J., & Sokal, L. (2016). Universal design for learning as a bridge to inclusion: A qualitative report of student voices. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 12(2), 36–63.

Longwell-Grice, L., Adsitt, N., Mullins, K., & Serrata, W. (2016). The first ones: Three studies on First-Generation College Students. NACADA Journal 36(2), 34–46.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Characteristics of Postsecondary Students. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from

O’Keefe, P. (2013). A sense of belonging: Improving student retention. College Student Journal, 47(4), 605–613.

Pratt, I. S., Harwood, H. B., Cavazos, J. T., & Ditzfeld, C. P. (2017). Should I stay or should I go? Retention in first-generation college students. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, & Practice, 21(1), 105–118.

Ralph, M., & Greenawalt, D. (2022, January 24). UDL to Boost First Generation Student Retention and Success [Webinar], CAST.

Salvatierra, A. G. (2022). Addressing imposter syndrome among first-generation college students. [Capstone project, California State University, Monterey Bay]. Digital Commons @ CSUMB.,and%20skills%20as%20a%20student

About the Author

Lisa Wisniewski is Professor of Sociology at Goodwin University in East Hartford, Connecticut. Her research has focused on immigrant students, first generation college students, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and effective teaching practices focused on Universal Design for Learning. Lisa current serves as the Faculty Senate President. She also has several publications, podcasts, and blog posts featuring her work in teaching and advocacy. Lisa also hosts and produces Community Conversations @ Goodwin University, a lecture series focused on sociological topics and current events. The lectures are being developed into course curriculum aligning with the Universal Design for Learning framework and Open Educational Resources to provide access and expert level content for educational use.

Profile Photo of Dr. Lisa M. Wisniewski, Ed.D.