A growing body of research paints a portrait of the added struggles many students can face in college if one or both of their parents didn’t have their own postsecondary experiences. But a new research brief highlights the challenges that children of non-college-going parents face while they’re still in high school.
Released Thursday, the brief from the National Center for Education Statistics finds that students whose parents didn’t go to college—"first-generation” college students—are less likely to enroll in challenging high school courses than their peers whose parents had earned bachelor’s degrees.
The report draws on the experiences of more than 45,000 students in three ongoing longitudinal studies. Among those who graduated from high school in 2003-04, only 27 percent of first-generation students took courses such as trigonometry/statistics/precalculus as their highest-level math class, compared to 43 percent of their peers with college-educated parents. Only 7 percent took calculus as their highest-level math class, while 22 percent of the students with college-going backgrounds did so.
Forty-four percent of the students with college-educated parents earned college credit through Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, compared to 18 percent of first-generation students.
First-generation students were less likely to choose an “academically focused curriculum,” too, which NCES defines as four years of English, two credits of the same foreign language, three years of math including a course higher than Algebra 2, three years of science including one class higher than general biology, and three years of social studies including U.S. or world history.
Students without college-going parents were less likely to finish high school in a given period of time, too. The study shows that 92 percent of first-generation students who were sophomores in 2002 had finished high school 10 years later—by earning a diploma or equivalency credential—compared to 97 percent of peers whose parents had some college experience and 98 percent of those whose parents had bachelor’s degrees.
The other findings of the NCES report reflect what’s been more widely reported:
- First-generation students are less likely to enroll in college than peers whose parents went to college. Among students who were sophomores in 2002, 72 percent of first-generation students enrolled in college 10 years later, compared with 84 percent of their peers whose parents had some college education, and 93 percent of those whose parents had earned bachelor’s degrees.
- First-generation students were more likely to leave college without a degree. Within three years of enrolling, one-third of first-gen students had left without a degree. That figure dropped to 26 percent for students whose parents had some college education, and to 14 percent for students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees.
- First-generation graduates were less likely to pursue doctoral or professional degrees. Only 4 percent followed those paths. Only 5 percent of students whose parents had some college experience enrolled in those programs, but 10 percent of students whose parents earned bachelor’s degrees did so.
The study also examined the question of whether being a first-generation student affected young people’s chances of employment, and their level of earnings, after getting college degrees, but it found no statistically significant differences on those issues.
Other studies have documented that first-generation students are less likely to apply to, enroll in, or complete college. They’ve also shown that students without college-going parents are more likely to live off campus, a choice that can often reduce their level of engagement and boost their chances of not completing degrees.
For other stories about first-generation college students, see:
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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.