College & Workforce Readiness

First-Generation College Students Face Special Risks, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — September 26, 2017 1 min read
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A new research brief offers a stark portrait of the risks of being the first in your family to attend college. Only 20 percent of those “first-generation” college students earn bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 25. For students from college-going families, that number is 43 percent.

A growing body of research illustrates the special vulnerabilities of being a first-generation college student. A report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences provides reminders of those risks.

The study follows a nationally representative sample of students from 2002, when they were high school sophomores, until 2012. It examines the differences between first-generation students and students from families where at least one parent earned a bachelor’s degree.

The study finds that while first-generation students had high educational aspirations, they risk falling behind their peers at many points in the transition from high school to college completion. They wait longer after high school to enroll in college, and they’re far less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Even though most aspire to college degrees, first-generation students are more likely to have lower grades in high school, and to have given no thought to taking a college-entrance exam.

Financial challenges play a bigger role in the lives of first-generation students than in those of their peers from college-going families. They’re more likely to come from families with annual household incomes under $20,000 (27 percent of first-gen students, and 6 percent of students with at least one parent who earned a bachelor’s degree). Half of the first-generation students come from homes earning $20,001 to $50,000 annually, compared with 23 percent of students from college-going families.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the report shows that money played a significant role in first-generation students’ decisions to drop out of college. Fifty-four percent said they left college without finishing because they couldn’t afford to continue, compared with 45 percent of students from families where at least one parent had a bachelor’s degree.

For more stories on first-generation college students, see:

For Some Immigrant Students, Culture Bears on College Choice

Immigrant Daughter Lands at Dream School

Photo: Getty Images

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.