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First Generation College Students Graduation Rates

By The Room 241 Team November 2, 2012

Graduation rates for first-generation college students — those whose parents never went to college — are notably lower than the rates for students who represent the second, third or fourth generation in their family to attend college.  First-generation students often have jobs and children who challenge their ability to focus on an education, and they lack the built-in support of moms and dads who have experienced what they are going through.

The challenge of being the first generation

A student is considered “first generation” if neither parent graduated from college. According to the Online Journal for Workforce Education and Development, nearly 50 percent of today’s college students meet this definition. Often low-income, these students have multiple factors working against their success. The fact that everything about college is new to them and they cannot go to their parents for advice is only the beginning of the challenge.

First-generation students are less likely to start college directly out of high school than their second-, third- and fourth-generation counterparts. According to the Pell Institute, the average age of enrollment for first-generation college students is 22, compared to 20 for students who are not first generation.

These first-generation students are twice as likely to be financially independent compared to other college students. In 2004, according to Pell, 54 percent of first-generation students were financially on their own, while only 27 percent of students who were not first generation had full financial responsibility for themselves.

First-generation students are also more likely to be financially responsible for others. Thirty percent of first generation students had dependents in 2004, according to Pell, with 11 percent being single parents, while only 14 percent of non-first generation students had dependents and only 4 percent were single parents.

Combined, these factors generally cause first-generation students to attend college part-time, because they must work full-time while taking classes.

Public vs. private school graduation rates

The majority of first-generation students enroll at less-expensive public schools rather than private institutions; this plays a role in their lower graduation rates.

Public colleges and universities enrolled 70 percent of the first-generation college students who began college in 2004, but graduation rates at private universities are consistently higher, according to “Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions,” a 2011 study completed by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The study found that private universities graduated 64 percent of students within four years, while public universities graduated only 37 percent of students within four years. Within six years, private schools graduated 78 percent of students, while public universities graduated less than 66 percent.

Substantial obstacles for first-generation college students

The forces working against first-generation college students — financial barriers, the types of schools they are more likely to attend, the fact that they must work, their part-time statuses and their lack of preparation for the world of higher education — manifests in their graduation rates.

The 2011 UCLA study also found that:

  • While 42 percent of students whose parents attended college graduated within fours years, only 27 percent of first-generation students graduated within four years.
  • While nearly 60 percent of students whose parents attended college graduated within five years, less than 45 percent of first-generation students graduated in the same time frame.
  • While 64 percent of students whose parents attended college graduated within six years, only 50 percent of first-generation students earned their degrees in that time frame.

So, while first-generation students make up more and more of the student body at U.S. colleges and universities, they are not necessarily making up a higher percentage of graduates. Until the system makes it easier for those who want to earn a degree to do so while maintaining other responsibilities, the number of students with some college education, but no degree to show for it, will be a continuing challenge for the higher education industry.

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