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Study: No Clear Definition On Who is a First-Generation Student

Higher education institutions have made strides in identifying and assisting first-generation students, but the lack of a standardized definition of a first-generation student is negatively impacting how colleges and universities properly aid this group, according to a new study released Wednesday.

The report titled, “First-generation Student Success: A Landscape Analysis of Programs and Services at Four-year Institutions,” details responses from colleges and universities on how they identify first-generation students during the admissions process.

But according to the report, there are varying definitions when it comes to who constitutes being a first-generation student.

“Right now what I’m advocating for is for campuses to evaluate what is the right definition for their campus and to use it consistently,” said Dr. Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the Center for First generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, the organization that conducted the research.

Dr. Sarah E. WhitleyDr. Sarah E. Whitley

Fifty six percent of the colleges surveyed, defined a first-generation student as one with no parent or guardian who earned a four-year degree.

Still, the report notes that there are even differences when it comes to the term among various departments and schools at the same university.

About 73 percent of the 273 institutions that responded to the survey reported having a formal, streamlined definition of the term. Another 15 percent reported not having a definition at all, while 12 percent did not know had their institution labeled first-generation students.

“There needs to be a very loud voice, a common directive from university leadership that says, ‘first-generation matters here.’ We need to put the time, the effort, the resources toward supporting these students,” Whitley said.

The report notes that many students decline to report whether they are first-generation because they think that doing so will negatively impact them. For other students, the phrasing of a first-generation identifier question can lead to confusion and result in misleading data or data not being reported at all.

Some students believe they aren’t first-generation because they have siblings who attend college, according to the report. Others don’t believe they are first-generation because their parents went to college in a different country, Whitley said.

She said that institutions should have a team of individuals who regularly engage with first-generation students and added that every college or university should administer campus audits that examines some overall characteristics about these students.

“We are treating first-generation students through a deficient-based lens,” Whitley said.

Instead, she said, educators should highlight the contributions these students make to campus life.

Whitley said that she and other researchers are now working on releasing an analysis of first-generation students at two-year institutions, with plans to also examine first-generation students at minority-serving institutions.

Jamie Rogers can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @JamieJournals.

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