First-generation students: Retention and intervention

The retention of first-generation students is problematic at colleges and universities nationwide.
Amy McGuffey is an assistant professor of Education at Wittenberg University as well as director of the Graduate Program. Lucas George teaches history at Franklin High School. Jonathan Duraj is the Sr. Associate Dean of Students for Student Success & Retention at Wittenberg University.

What is the likelihood of a first-generation student graduating from an institution of higher education? What supports and interventions within the context of high schools and colleges and universities help these students successfully navigate the processes for attending and graduating?

A first-generation student can be defined as an individual whose parents or grandparents never achieved a degree from an institution of higher education and are the first in their family to attend college. The individual’s parents may have attended a few classes, but unless the parents or guardians achieved a degree they are considered to be first-generation students. If the individual has an older sibling who has attained a degree from a form of higher education, the individual is still considered a first-generation student.

The enrollment in colleges and universities was projected to be 20.6 million in 2018, up from 18.2 in 2007 and 14.3 million in 1993. With a rise in the number of students entering higher education, structuring necessary resources to support completion has become a focus for these institutions.

In addition, there are outside stressors that can negatively impact or deter first-generation students from completing their higher education degrees. These stressors can range from psychological, social, familial, or financial. Due to the high value placed on earning a degree, it is important to address what high schools are doing to help set first-generation students up for success prior to entering higher education and then what institutions are doing to help these students’ dreams of graduating become a reality.

First-generation student success begins in high school

The study of first-generation students has been an emerging topic of research over the past few decades. First-generation students face a wide variety of obstacles when it comes to being accepted into an institution of higher education. The growing demand of federal assistance for first-generation students has caused many questions about how well these students are being prepared for higher education and how well they are retained once they are attending. In this analysis of the retention of first-generation students, this section will look at what is being done to prepare students throughout high school until the first official day of higher education.

The high school guidance counselor is a critical resource who assists students and families with student transition issues as well as the higher education search and admission process. One of the main roles of high school guidance counselors is to help students transition to the next level of their education or to successfully enter the workforce. Unfortunately, emphasis on the role of supporting students with their transition to higher education has diminished over time due to administrative, social health, and other roles that the guidance counselor must support.

High school counselors acknowledge that they have a diminishing role in the higher education planning process with students. Previously, throughout the 1960s and 70s, high school guidance counselors were the driving force behind applications and admissions for higher education. As the availability of more open-admission institutions, such as community colleges, developed, counselors found themselves in a less authoritative and influential role.

This combination can be especially damaging for first-generation students because they may have little to no resources at home or among their social groups to provide them with reliable information and guidance about higher education pathways.

Some important indicators of how students view higher education enrollment and persistence include expectations by the school, parents, and peer group. The school system a student resides in and family are the two most important influences to analyze as a student enters the higher education application process. The immediate family is the biggest social factor when examining the application and eventual admission of first-generation students.

Outside the school system, it is usually up to the parents and immediate family to provide information and guidance to students about college search and application processes, financial aid and transitioning. This type of influence may start at the secondary level when students begin to have more exposure to higher education. This can present a problem for predominantly low-income and minority school systems where many of the families do not have as much access to resources needed to help with the college search and application process.

Evidently, having an ill-prepared or overburdened counselor and lack of information at home could lead to many first-generation students’ inability to access the resources they need to make an informed decision on what path they should take after high school. The family and high school counselors are the biggest influences when completing the application process and being accepted into colleges and universities.

In high socioeconomic and well-achieving educational systems, there are many students whose family members have attended college for generations. For those students, the knowledge of the application and admission process may be more supportive and extensive as the parents have experience navigating and understanding the process. However, those who grow up in a lower-ranked, lower-achieving education system could face a preparatory process that could limit their potential and opportunities.

The application process for first-generation students begins as it does for any other traditional/non-traditional students. Students who do not have access to family resources, have to rely heavily on guidance counselors to guide them through the process—or try to tackle it themselves. Several studies found there is a distinct connection between the socioeconomic status of students and the amount of time a counselor spends with them on the higher education search process.

Students from low-income backgrounds, usually also minority, first-generation students, will be more likely to rely on their high school counselors to receive advice in regard to higher education but will be less likely to get it. These unfortunate circumstances could lead to many students being unmatched with their future institution of higher education, meaning students end up enrolling in institutions that are less selective or not in line with a student’s ability or potential. A national study on first-generation students found that about one-third of the well-qualified seniors whose parents had never attended college enrolled in a selective college, while 42% attended a less selective college.

Even before first-generation students sit down with their counselor for the first time, they are statistically at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Intervention and support at the high school level for first-generation students is critical for students to have the information and guidance they need to appropriately identify a pathway that matches their ability and potential.

Throughout high school, support and guidance related to higher education search and enrollment processes are important foundational pieces for first-generation students. For those first-generation students that enroll in an institution of higher education, several barriers exist that may impact one’s ability to persist through graduation.

Motivation and socioeconomic factors

A first-generation student’s motivation to attend an institution of higher education can be negatively impacted within their first year of attendance. Research shows a correlation between a student’s motivation level and the retention rate of first-generation students. First-generation students generally face obstacles, such as a lack of support from family, a lack of financial aid, and difficulty navigating the administrative structures of academia.

First-generation students reported more interdependent motives for attending college including the desire to become financially secure in the future and provide more opportunities for their children. If these motives are compromised, the student will be less likely to continue on through graduation. Additionally, as outlined earlier, socioeconomic factors can also impact a first-generation student’s ability to persist.

Two dimensions of disadvantage that have negative associations with degree attainment are low family income and first-generation status. Research shows a positive correlation between first-generation students and low family income. Dropout rates tend to be the highest among first-generation students and low- income students. Interventions to help students learn how to access and attain financial aid is one of the most important components to increase the retention rates among first-generation students alongside a good advisor.

Cultural adaptation in higher education

First-generation students have difficulties balancing the expectations of their families with those of their institutions. These students often say their first exposure to campus life was a shock that took them years to overcome. The structure and self-discipline can be a difficult adjustment.

Students must weigh the values and rules of the university, to the values and rules of their families and then determine what their personal values entail. First-generation students may find themselves “on the margin of two cultures” and must often renegotiate relationships at the institution of higher education and at home to manage the tension between the two.

First-generation students often feel pressure from family to be home and to support family needs. This can leave first-generation students feeling lost, conflicted, or unable to put the necessary time into their studies. The family may expect the student to go straight into the workforce after school and not waste time and money on additional schooling. Research shows first-generation students often experience discontinuities between the culture of their families and the communities and culture that exists on college and university campuses, which are often described as “worlds apart.”

These factors may impact one’s ability to succeed in college. Additionally, there are environmental factors of higher education that can impact a first-generation student’s sense of self and success.

Academic and social integration

First-generation students often struggle academically and socially as they transition to higher education. They struggle with study and time management skills and they experience more difficulty navigating the bureaucratic aspects of academic life.

These characteristics can result in less study time and therefore being unprepared for exams and other school work. Along with the academic rigor of college, first-generation students may struggle to choose a major, or select appropriate classes to stay on track through graduation.

First-generation students tend to delay participation in extracurricular activities and campus life until they feel they have their academic lives under control. Involvement in extracurricular and social activities is an important element to engagement and success in higher education, but when this is delayed students are at a heightened risk of leaving the institution.

First-generation students may find it uncomfortable or difficult to interact with their advisors, professors and peers leading to a struggle of social integration. In addition, not understanding the bureaucratic nuances of academia like non-first-generation peers could leave first-generation students hesitant to advocate for their needs and seek support.

This is seen in first-generation students being less likely to seek out professors with questions about the course as well as advisors for questions about their schedule or other academic concerns. If they are less socially integrated with their peers, first-generation students will be less likely to go to study groups or get involved in extracurricular activities. First-generation students derive more benefit from their involvement in extracurricular activities than being uninvolved on campus. They also have a stronger sense of belonging when they are actively engaged in their campus community.

Social connection and involvement with a campus is a critical component to student retention—this is defined as extending time and energy with the academic, psychological, and social aspects of college. Not being able to fully engage with the institution presents a barrier to student retention and overall success.

Additionally, retention corresponds to the positive influence of academic and social integration. Students who are not in a position to positively integrate these two aspects with their personal or familial demands may be at risk of leaving the institution.


First-generation students are less likely to utilize or have more difficulty in recognizing university support, due to their limited experience in accessing services throughout their schooling or limited familial and personal knowledge of resources available to support them. The retention rate among these students in higher education is immensely affected because of this limited experience in identifying services. It is vital for universities to design and implement strategies and interventions that first-generation students find easily accessible because the transition to higher education can be extremely difficult for these students.

Being a first-generation student confers its greatest liability in the initial adjustment to and survival in an institution of higher education. Therefore, the implementation of transitional interventions such as first-year programs and “freshman student-led panels” are vital for colleges to increase the retention rates among these students. First-generation students are about twice as likely as those whose parents had bachelor’s degrees to leave after the first year of school.

There are also longstanding interventions in place for students throughout their higher education career such as academic advising, increased financial aid, and increased exposure to and engagement in the institution through sports, societies, sororities/fraternities, and extracurricular clubs and activities. The work within social groups promotes a different type of intervention that allows students to grow within the college community.

Joining these groups leads to more social interaction and may have an impact on the students’ decision to remain enrolled in college or not. Although the social impact is important, advising also plays a large role in retaining first-generation students.


Good advising might be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful higher education experience. There is a positive correlation between retention rates for first-generation students in relation to academic advising and student retention.

The role of the academic advisor is to help the student plan their higher education experience, serve as a mentor and a counselor, and ultimately make sure that the student is on track to graduate. The most effective advisors may be ones who were first-generation students themselves, who have experienced all that the students are struggling with.

An effective advisor serves as an advocate for first-generation students and is an essential component to keeping the student connected to the school. Advising appointments may be one of the few higher education mechanisms that consistently connect students to the academic institution in meaningful ways.

Effective advisors also meet with students regularly to ease the transition to life in the higher education environment. Throughout the higher education experience, the advisor continues to help students adapt to new challenges and stages of their higher education career. Above all, they maintain a lasting relationship that can serve as a safety-net for the student.

First-year programs

First-year programs, also known as support services, are another key component of increasing retention. Structured first-year programs offer students an extensive amount of support on a consistent basis throughout the year. Some student support service programs are implementing “learning community” type strategies. Learning communities are meant to extend beyond the classroom. The students will have access to a support system of peers outside of the learning environment. Learning communities represent a strategy for promoting “shared learning” and “connected learning” among students. Beyond just first-year programs, when community is encouraged in classrooms and strategies such as learning communities, group work, or even transparency in the discussion are implement, students are more likely to feel connected.

Mentorship programs

Another effective approach to supporting first-generation student success are mentorship programs. Given the lack of social capital and self-efficacy first-generation students often face, mentorship programs serve as a means to link a student with a peer to help guide, translate, and support the student’s persistence. Mentoring relationships can help first-generation students build a sense of achievement and efficacy as they enter a foreign academic environment.

A recent study found that first-generation mentoring programs resulted in helping first-generation students navigate aspects of higher education such as course scheduling, scholarship availability, enhancing study skills, and connecting with peers. Additionally, the stronger the relationship between a first-generation student and their mentee the more beneficial the student’s higher education experience.

Student panels

Differences should be discussed and valued. Student panels are one way this can be accomplished. Research shows that using student panels as an intervention strategy for first-generation students served as an academic and psychological resource for the students.

The study identified that talking about differences in a supportive and constructive environment, can be empowering as it both helps people make sense of their context and plan for the future which in turn reduces the social-class achievement gap.

Financial aid

An increase in financial aid can improve the odds that first-generation students will be successful in the institution of higher education. However, many first-generation students have a lack of knowledge about how to find and access financial aid services. They find it a tedious process and lack support on how to go about identifying scholarships and maximizing their financial aid package.

Providing a first-generation student scholarship has been posed as one intervention. This demonstrates the institution’s support and commitment to the success of first-generation students. First-generation students, most of whom are from low-income and minority backgrounds, face the challenge of inadequate finances which makes it more difficult not only to get into an institution of higher education but to also graduate from the institution.

Due to a lack of resources, first-generation students are more likely to live and work off-campus limiting their time on campus. First-generation students often find the financial burden so consuming, that they find off-campus jobs that remove them from the social support and campus involvement which is crucial to their success.

The more financial aid first-generation students receive, such as grants, scholarships, and work studies, the more likely they will become immersed in campus life and remain at the institution. Even working an on-campus job is a means for first-generation students to become connected. These interventions correlate with positive retention rates. The more the campus is willing to pursue these interventions, the more retention rates of first-generation students will rise.


The retention of first-generation students is problematic at colleges and universities nationwide. First-generation students are 1.3 times more likely than their peers, whose parents experienced higher education, to leave an institution during their initial year. This is concerning. First-generation students face internal and external pressures, structural barriers, and resource constraints that impact their ability to attend and succeed in higher education. This includes academic and social preparation, and familial, financial, and psychological pressures.

These barriers begin in high school and remain, many times, throughout higher education. Therefore, it is imperative that higher ed administrators understand the barriers and pressures first-generation students face and structure support and intervention to promote student success in higher education.

Policies, structures, practices, advising, and programs beginning in high schools should be carefully examined to promote the success and persistence of first-generation students. In doing so, colleges and universities can better support the retention of first-generation students.

Amy McGuffey is an assistant professor of Education at Wittenberg University as well as director of the Graduate Program. Lucas George teaches history at Franklin High School. Jonathan Duraj is the Sr. Associate Dean of Students for Student Success & Retention at Wittenberg University.

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