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Fresh Insights on First-Generation College Students: A Need to Change the Language of Retention

In the healthcare community, there has been a concerted effort to shift the language used to describe people with disabilities. Instead of referring to people by their disability first, saying “a disabled person,” a focus has been placed on person-first language, such as “a person with a disability.” According to The Arc, an advocacy group, “by placing the person first, the disability is no longer the primary, defining characteristic.” Words have the power to shape both how we view ourselves and how we view others, so even slight changes can have impact.

Being intentional about language and recognizing the person first is something we should model in higher education, and not just in relation to people with disabilities. We currently group students using labels that imply the ways they are destined to fail. Low socioeconomic status, disadvantaged, first-generation—all are tacitly negative, and all refer to people who are students first. They may think, communicate or have their basic needs met differently than other college students, but these are differences, not deficits.

Dr. Shannon LaCountDr. Shannon LaCount

It’s true that first-generation students might be naïve to standard operating procedure in higher education—I know I was when I stepped onto campus as the first in my family to go to college. But there is power in this naivete, as it offers the chance to reflect on why things are done a certain way. Too often, though, we focus on and track the ways first-generation students are “deficient,” emphasizing potential negative outcomes. The goal is to protect them from their own shortcomings. However, this mindset misses the opportunity to capitalize on an influx of new perspectives. And, continually being shown the ways you are . . expected to fail is not especially motivating.

Recently, I led a discussion about first-generation students and noted the ubiquitous fact that they are twice as likely to leave after their first year and less likely to attain a four-year degree. While accurate, and certainly cause for concern, an underlying assumption is that this is due to lack of ability. It is important to determine why this is happening, and it is detrimental to assume we already know.

Using data from the Campus Labs Student Strengths Inventory (SSI)—which campuses use to assess students across six non-cognitive categories—we confirmed potential areas of need and identified strengths that check common assumptions, providing fresh insights on first-generation students.

Students typically complete the SSI during orientation or in the first weeks of the semester as they enter into their new environment—and more than one million students at institutions across the United States have responded to the Campus Labs SSI to date. Of the approximately 750,000 respondents who provided information to determine first-generation status, 14 percent reported that neither parent or guardian obtained a four-year degree. Several of our findings stand out.

First-generation students scored higher in academic engagement, educational commitment and campus engagement.

In this context, academic engagement is the value placed on academics and attentiveness to school work; and educational commitment is the dedication to college and value placed on a degree. It is often stated that first-generation students are less academically prepared—a belief that can lead to lowered expectations and behavioral assumptions. If a first-generation student struggles in a course, they may not know how to navigate institutional structures to get help. When faculty and staff observe this behavior, some are quick to assume it is because first-generation students are not as capable, or that they simply don’t value learning. The Campus Labs SSI data directly contradicts this latter point.

For campus engagement—the value placed on participating in extra-curricular activities—first-generation students also placed practically higher than their peers. This engagement gives students a sense of belonging and connects classroom learning to outside experiences—a key factor in retaining students through degree completion. It is often assumed that first-generation students have barriers to participating in campus engagement activities, such as lower socio-economic status, multiple jobs or family responsibilities. While this may be true, Campus Labs SSI data shows us it is also true that first-generation students score in a higher percentile when assessing the importance of campus engagement—a fact that can influence how institutions design and deliver these experiences.

First-generation students scored lower in social comfort and resiliency.

Conversely, we found first-generation students had lower percentile ranks than their peers in the areas of social comfort and resiliency. Social comfort refers to one’s comfort in social situations and the ability to communicate with others. Again, it can be daunting to enter situations where the vocabulary, habits and cultural norms are different from those you’ve known your entire life. It is unfair to assume first-generation students cannot adapt when they may just need a safe, non-judgmental environment that offers structured opportunities and time to learn new ways of thinking.

Resiliency is defined as one’s approach to challenging situations or stressful events. Even though first-generation students score lower here, one should not assume this means they are less resilient. Low confidence in one’s ability to handle stress does not mean one is not capable. If, as mentioned earlier, a student also has lower socio-economic status or heavy responsibilities outside of school, their resiliency may be applied to meeting basic needs rather than academic needs. And, even if those other factors are not true, students may not feel resilient in stressful higher education situations because they simply are not familiar with the structure or resources available.

First-generation students are less likely to question if attending college was the right decision.

We also tested questions measuring perceptions of a college education and the importance of acquiring a degree with a set of 53,000 students—32,000 provided information to determine first-generation status, and 29 percent were identified as first-generation. Most interesting was the result of asking students to respond to the statement, â€śI sometimes wonder if attending college was the right decision.” 

Ninety-one percent of first-generation students somewhat to strongly disagreed, and 84 percent of non-first-generation students somewhat to strongly disagreed with this statement. It was hypothesized that first-generation students would be more ambivalent to attending college and obtaining a degree—when, in fact, the opposite was true. This may be because first-generation students have had to think more carefully about the investment of time and money to pursue a degree, the decision to attend college is a deviation from a family norm, or a conscious decision is made to attend college for a specific purpose—such as getting a job. Whereas non-first-generation students may simply attend college because it is an expected family custom.

While the language we use in our campus retention efforts will not change overnight to center on the student first, it’s important for us to recognize that some of the predominant operating assumptions about first-generation students, in particular, are not accurate. As student demographics continue to change, we have the opportunity to reorient higher education to focus on what all student populations bring to campus rather than what they lack.

Shannon LaCount is assistant vice president of campus adoption at Campus Labs. Previously, LaCount served as director of student learning assessment and assistant professor of language disorders and portfolio development at the University of Minnesota Duluth.



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