Recent Study Debunks Assumptions about First-Generation Students

Campus Labs, a higher education data collection and software company, has released the results of a study comparing educational attitudes of first-generation students to those of students who have at least one parent with a college degree. While much of the current research on first-generation students focuses on educational disparities, the study contradicts some of the underlying assumptions and stereotypes that paint these individuals as academically challenged, says the company’s report.

More than 750,000 students across 1,400 colleges and universities participated in the study by completing the Student Strengths Inventory (SSI), a detailed survey created by Campus Labs. Consisting of 40 questions, the SSI evaluates respondents’ academic commitment, beliefs about higher education, and characteristics such as resiliency and self-efficacy. It also asks students about their involvement with campus groups and activities and their comfort in interacting with others in the higher education environment. All survey takers were first-year students; 14 percent reported being the first in their families to attend college.

The SSI responses yielded several findings that challenge commonly held beliefs about first-generation students, say Campus Labs researchers. Contrary to the stereotype that these individuals may have too many family or work obligations to be engaged in campus life, for example, first-generation respondents indicated a strong desire to be active members of their campus communities. Therefore, colleges and universities should make an effort to explicitly reach out to these individuals when designing opportunities for campus and community involvement, say researchers.

Furthermore, respondents who were the first in their family to attend college reported being even more focused on academic achievement than other study participants. Campus Labs suggests faculty and administrators should not assume, then, that first-generation students who appear to fall behind do not place a high value on learning. Instead, the company recommends that schools help this population be aware of and navigate all available academic resources.

Another common belief disproved by the study is that first-generation students are inherently more resilient than their peers, having possibly faced greater obstacles in life and on the road to earning a college degree. In fact, first-generation students scored lower than average when on survey questions regarding the ability to cope with stressful situations. Though the Campus Lab report did not elaborate on this particular finding, colleges and universities may take this knowledge into consideration when designing student support and wellness services.

In addition to the SSI, company researchers gave a shorter survey to 53,000 students — 29 percent of whom identified as first-generation — about the importance of earning a college degree. The majority of respondents had similar answers to four of survey’s five questions. First-generation students and their peers largely agreed, for example, with the belief that college degrees should be practical. Most survey takers also disagreed with the statement “I may postpone my college education for family or work obligations.”

However, 91 percent of first-generation students said they were firm in their belief that attending college was the best decision for their futures. By comparison, 84 percent of their peers reported questioning their decision to enroll in higher education. A possible explanation for this difference may be that first-generation students are more likely to have a highly specific purpose for attending college — such as landing a dream job — whereas other respondents may attend college primarily to meet longstanding family expectations, say researchers.