9.3 million. That’s how many first-generation students (FGS) there are on college campuses today. Would you believe that this segment of undergraduate students—a whopping 51 percent—is essentially invisible on campus?

By definition, first-generation students are those whose parents have not completed a bachelor’s degree. And while FGS aren’t visibly different from their peers, their lower likelihood to succeed sets them apart. In twoyear institutions, their chances of lasting the full time are even less likely.

Out of all the groups on campus, first-generation students struggle the most—period.

In the book, “First-Generation College Students: Understanding and Improving the Experience from Recruitment to Commencement,” co-author Dr. Lee Ward says that there are many reasons for FGS’ lower odds of success, including being frequently marginalized on campus, treated with benign disregard and placed at a competitive disadvantage because of their invisibility.

Ward says that forms of cultural capital often leave FGS unaware of the nuances of college life. They tend to have lower expectations or aspirations than other students, inadequate academic preparation upon entering college, less knowledgeable family support at key periods during the first year of college and lower levels of engagement in campus environments.

So where does that leave today’s universities and first-generation students? For starters, to recruit them you have to understand them. Unfortunately, too many higher ed recruiters don’t know the right questions to ask. “They can’t ask their parents,” says Mary Ontiveros, VP for Diversity at Colorado State University. “That causes problems over time.”

“Adjustment has several variables, all of which need to be addressed thoroughly and simultaneously.”


“Adjustment has several variables, all of which need to be addressed thoroughly and simultaneously.”

Ontiveros recalls what a colleague told her regarding the challenge: “They come with a knapsack of bricks on their backs.”

Because first-generation students enter college at a bigger disadvantage, they need a bit more nurturing to thrive in a higher education atmosphere. This type of nurturing simply begins by letting them know you understand their challenge during the enrollment process. Smart Enrollment Specialists can create messaging that stuspeaks to their pain points.

“A snapshot of first-generation students requires a wide-angle lens,” Ward says. “They are young and older; of varying races and ethnic backgrounds; urban, suburban and rural; poor and wealthy, etc.”

According to research by RNL Market Research, a quarter of prospective first-generation students don’t start their college planning by May of their junior year. Additionally, 45 percent apply to colleges they learn about in their senior year of high school versus 30 percent of non-FGS. That leaves less time for schools to recruit FGS.

And, of course, there’s the financial aspect. According to a September 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 27 percent of first-generation college students came from households making $20,000 or less, compared to only six percent of non-FGS. In addition, 50 percent of FGS students came from households earning $20,001 to $50,000, whereas only half that amount (23 percent) of non-FGS students had this financial background.

That means the financial barriers many FGS come to the table with cause institution-specific recruitment challenges. “A public comprehensive with a modest endowment may have difficulty offering the amount of financial aid that these students may need, while a highly-selective, liberal arts institution may have plenty of aid to offer but might find it difficult to get the students to look beyond the sticker shock,” Ward says. “Still, other institutions may have all the financial incentives in place, but not be able to create the kind of campus climate where FGS have a sense of belonging, where they feel as if they matter.”

For first-generation students to succeed, Ward says the whole system needs an overhaul.

Heading into 2019, the major struggle for FGS pursuing higher education remains. Ward says the problem is that the campus climate at many institutions is not “warm enough” for FGS to feel comfortable in their surroundings, an attribute that is critical to success.

“If FGS are not embraced by other students and faculty; if the campus culture rewards those who tend to be and can afford to be highly engaged; if students feel they are there just so an institution can check a diversity box; if students feel they are noticeable for what they lack rather than what they bring,” Ward says, “then all the good intentions and financial aid in the world are not going to keep those students in school.”

Ward believes today’s universities must take a holistic approach to remedy FGS dropouts. The key to helping them adjust, like it is for all students, is to utilize a systems approach and manage the FGS experience holistically.

“Adjustment has several variables, all of which need to be addressed thoroughly and simultaneously,” Ward says. “[That includes] financial support, orientation programs to address cultural capital, orientation programs specifically for parents, faculty mentorship programs, affordable paths to engagement (especially in High Impact Practices such as study abroad and internships), excellent academic advising, the presence of welcoming support services, etc.”

Take Colorado State University, which runs the First-Generation Faculty Initiative—a program that connects first-gen faculty members with FGS. Ontiveros says the faculty response was immediate and significant.

“First-gen faculty members wanted FGS to hear their stories and to know they’re not alone,” she says. “They’d work with prospective students, give talks when prospective students visit, add a first-gen mention on their email signatures, wear first-gen stickers and pins, and so on.”

Colorado State’s first-gen freshman class percentage has hovered around 25 percent for the past 10 years. It was the first university to have a first-generation award. The program pays for tuition and offered a support system, along with many other incentives and perks. “We try to let people know it is significant and an outstanding identity,” Ontiveros says of first-gen status. “It is nothing to be ashamed of.”

There are other ways that first-generation students are recognized at Colorado State. For example, an engineering department chair invites all the department’s first-gen students to lunch when they arrive at school. In addition, FGS are acknowledged on graduation day when the cum laudes are honored. First-gen students are asked to stand and revel in their major accomplishment.

“Even with all these programs, we still have a large number of students that are not being served the way we want to serve them,” Ontiveros says. “In a meeting last week, we asked, ‘How do we get to a point where all of that 25 percent is receiving all of those services?’”

From initial outreach to enrollment and graduation day, the FGS experience can improve. While it may be more difficult to recruit these students, it is worthwhile. First-generation students often have more enthusiasm, perseverance, curiosity and other strengths than continuing-generation students thanks to their unique backgrounds.

As school administrators like Ontiveros will tell you, there has to be a first generation in order to be a second and a third. They are the true links to a generation of learners.

Blueprint for FGS success

  • Learn & acknowledge the FGS plight in communication efforts
  • Offer financial support & affordable paths to engagement
  • Advise students & parents from beginning to end
  • Create a warm, inclusive college environment
  • See FGS for their strengths as students