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Report: First-generation Black Freshmen Drop in Four-Year Colleges

The number of first-generation Black students entering four-year colleges dropped by almost two-thirds between 1971 and 2005, according to new data collected by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The representation of first-generation Black students at four-year colleges dropped from 62.9 percent in 1971 to 22.6 percent in 2005, says the report, “First in My Family: A Profile of First-Generation College Students at Four-Year Institutions Since 1971.”

This may suggest a positive trend, but that is not the case, says visiting assistant professor Victor Saenz, the lead author of the study.

“It’s a huge disconnect and we were careful to interpret the data,” Saenz says.

The decline could be attributed to the increasing attractiveness of two-year colleges and the diminishing access to four-year institutions. First-generation Hispanic students showed similar numbers, though they had the highest overall rate of first-generation college students (38.2 percent) in the study.

“But this stems from the transient nature of the [Hispanic] population and the steady influx of immigrant-born children,” Saenz says. “They can also be attracted more to two-year colleges.”

The report states that parental encouragement was a strong motivator for first-generation students to go to college. In 2005, 47 percent of first-generation students said parental encouragement was an important reason to attend college, besides getting a better job (77.3 percent), making more money (76.4 percent) or preparing for graduate school (58 percent).

One of the surprises from the report, says Saenz, was that the differences between first-generation students and non-first-generation students was minimal. They were just as ambitious and motivated as their peers who may have more family experience to draw from. Another surprise was that, when it comes to parents, there is a common misconception that they work at a disadvantage.

“What we find is that parents play a very important role,” says Saenz. “They are wanting upward social mobility, and students are really tied into the goal.”

The gap between first-generation students expecting to get a job to pay for college and their non-first-generation college peers continues to increase, says the report. The sharp rise in tuition and fees from the mid-1980s to 2005 may be affecting these increased expectations for work during college, researchers say.

Saenz says first-generation students do better at private institutions, but they are least likely to go there due to costs and other disadvantages.

“Private colleges have to do more to attract these students but the reality is that it’s tough to get that message across,” he says.

The trends report is based on 35 years worth of data collected through the Freshman Survey. On average, more than 400,000 entering college freshmen participate in the survey each year.

For a summary of the report, visit

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