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Report: More than Half of All U.S. College Students in the U.S. Are First-Generation

More than half of all college students in the U.S. are first-generation college students, according to recent findings from Forbes Advisor.Sarah E. WhitleySarah E. Whitley

First-generation college students – defined in the report as students whose parents are without four-year college degrees – make up 56% of the nation’s postsecondary students, the report found.

These students are distinct in other ways as well. They are more likely to come from low-income or minority backgrounds and more likely to be a parent, caregiver, veteran, or first-generation American. They are also less likely to use career-planning services and to engage in formal leadership roles, research with faculty, paid internships, and study abroad opportunities.

The publication also breaks down the demographic in terms of categories such as race, sex, immigration, and age.

Report authors found that, overall, historically marginalized groups were more heavily represented among first-gen students, with less than half of these students (46%) identifying as white – 61% of continuing-generation students identified as such. A quarter of the first-gen population identified as Hispanic, 18% as Black or African American, and 6% as Asian, according to data from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).

And looking at specific racial and ethnic groups revealed stark numbers of first-gen students among certain communities. For instance, most Hispanic or Latino students (60%), Black or African American students (59%), and American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (54%) students were first-gen.

Meanwhile, for white students, only 36% were first-gen.

A solid portion (28%) of first-gen students are 30 or older. And, as of 2016, the majority of first-gen students are female (60%), compared to 52% of continuing-gen students, according to NASPA.

As for immigrant status, the report found that 10% of first-gen students are first-generation immigrants and 23% are second-gen – at least one parent is foreign-born.

Tracking by school type, first-gen students at nonprofit four-year schools enrolled more frequently at lower-cost, less-selective public schools, but support and outcomes are often better for the demographic at more selective ones, the report found.

Given that many in the first-gen student population come from disadvantaged backgrounds, future earnings are a significant consideration. According to the report, the effects of being first-gen doesn’t end after college. Income disparities between first-gen and continuing-gen students often persisted even after school.

Looking at heads of household with degrees as of 2019, those with bachelor's-graduate parents earned a median annual income of $135,800, but those with parents without degrees made a median $99,600, according to the Pew Research Center.

“As more institutions identify and support first-generation students, they are increasingly recognizing the substantial assets these individuals bring to campus: grit, ambition, fresh viewpoints that enhance the broader academic community,” said Sarah E. Whitley, vice president of NASPA initiative Center for First-Generation Student Success. “We must ensure that we’re putting the same effort into supporting first-generation students on campus as we do getting them to campus. This is how we can change outcomes for these students – helping them to graduate and gain success after graduation.”

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