Parents Just Don’t Understand: Literature Review Considering the Impact of Parents/Families of First Generation Students on the College Going Process and their Transitions Within College
Students and their ability to access higher education and a college degree is defined and formed by a number of factors, namely the student’s academic achievement, family background, and the culture and academic environment of the student’s secondary school experience (Perna, 2006). The process of going to college is a much different paradigm for students that are first generation college students than those that are of the continuing generation to attend college. Students that identify as first generation college students, or FGEN, think about going to college much later in the process than compared to those who have parents that earned a four-year college degree (McDonough, 1997). While a number of varied definitions exist nationally, for the purposes of the literature review, by definition from the U.S. Department of Education (2018) FGEN college students are those students whose parents or guardians have not earned a four-year bachelor’s degree, but may have some postsecondary college experience (Redford, 2018). These students have been identified and defined as “first generation” or “FGEN” due to the fact that each student is unable to benefit from the experiences of college-education parents by an exchange and sharing of information and goal setting (Horn and Nunez, 2000). In addition, students that are defined as first generation are disadvantaged in understanding what skills, attitudes, and abilities are necessary to successfully navigate the college experience, and consequently have the ability to transition into college and persist with a four-year college degree (Horn and Nunez, 2000). If FGEN students are entering college, and ultimately participating in their own college experience with a notable disadvantages, this is problematic. If our system of higher education is encouraging them to enter college, and ultimately be successful in college, it is critical that FGEN students have an equal understanding of what skills, attitudes and abilities are needed for success. Without possessing these skills, FGEN students are at greater risk to enter college and, importantly, earn a four-year college degree.
Current literature suggests that the connection between family background and cultural factors that may exist plays a vital role for students as they matriculate to a four-year college, and ultimately seek success within the higher education system (Braxton, 2000). It is common that students that come from first generation home environments are also disadvantaged as a result of the lack of support and encouragement that they receive to seek educational and professional goals that are not cultivated and manifested in their homes (McDonough, 1997). The degree to which members of the family are educated, social status, socio-economic status (SES), and student academic ability are reliable indicators of students’ potential to succeed in entering college successfully, and ultimately, lead to further achievement while in the university environment (Braxton, 2000). This, the research suggests that family background and home life, including SES and parents education, influence first generation student success.
Parental encouragement has been shown to positively relate to student academic involvement and is an aspect that influences student educational aspirations (Astin, 1993; Braxton, 2000). While one may understand that expectations about college play a role in a student’s motivation and commitment to succeed, factors associated with expectations are typically embedded and entrenched in students prior to their matriculation to college. Tinto (1993) offers that the stronger the link between the goal of college completion and other valued goals (professional employment, social mobility, and affiliation), the greater the chance for a student to attend and complete college. Typically, this commitment manifests itself in two notable ways: goal commitment (a student’s commitment to personal and educational goals prior to and during college) and a student’s commitment to being successful once in college (a willingness to work toward and within the goals of the institution) (Tinto, 1993).
McDonough (1997) notes in her work that these networks of support create what are termed individual biographies, which are similar in nature to predisposition factors that impact the college going experience. Family, friends, and school networks of support significantly impact the decision of each student to attend and remain successful in the college and university environment (McDonough 1997). It is these individual biographies that not only impact a student’s ability in choosing a school, but equally as important the ability for the student to remain in school until their degree is completed (Acker-Ball 2007). FGEN college students, in turn, are very active in their choosing to stay at their higher institution of learning, or to opt to leave (Lopez-Turley, 2006). Given the variety of unique factors that first generation students possess given that they are the first in their family to attend college, it is not simply a matter for this student population to matriculate from one semester to another; they must regularly examine their options (cost benefit, aspirations, etc.) and formulate a plan as to how they will continue through college. Much of the research on student aspirations has really focus on what students are doing, or encountering, that is leading to them ultimately leaving the college environment (Ishitani, 2006; Adelman, 1999; Padilla 1997). However, research has also been conducted to determine what can be done to enhance first generation student persistence and, ultimately, a first generation student earning a four-year college degree (Ishitani, 2006; Adelman, 1999; Padilla 1997)
The parent and family units play a significant role for the student as each seeks to potentially pursue, enroll, and graduate with a four-year college degree. Factors that contribute to a student’s educational aspirations and ability to persist are often determined and influenced by the home environment. (Acker-Ball, 2007). The knowledge, skills, and dispositions that students learn prior to the college admissions process influences student behavior, attitudes, and aspirations. However, a significant gap exists for a first generation student in this process. If the parent and family unit is void of college experience themselves, how does this void serve to impact first generation college students and the guidance and necessary support that is needed? The purpose of this study is to understand and discover the impact of parents and families of first generation students on the college going process (CGP). In reviewing the current literature, the purpose of this study will be to examine and understand the impacts and correlations that may exist between first generation parents and families, and how their lack of college experience potentially hinders their son or daughter as they seek to enter college. In short, the literature and research offers that FGEN parents and families’ lack of college experience negatively impacts the FGEN student experience. In addition, student self-perception is negatively impacted by the noted lack of supports by FGEN parents and families. Next, this review of literature will examine this perceived gap between first generation students and their parents that have not earned a college degree and identify how this phenomenon might impact and play a role on the first generation student as they transition into college, and their overall college-going experience. Understanding how parents and families might impact first generation student experiences matriculating to and persisting college may inform and identify potential best practices, areas of further study, or interventions that might be possible to further serve as a bridge of support between students and parents/families. It is important to note that research on first generation students, and the first generation student experience, is still developing. Many studies have become more prevalent only in the last 10 years. Studies from Tinto (1993) and Astin (1993), among others noted in this study, provide foundational research on this connection between connection between FGEN parents’ lack of college experience and its negative impact on the student experience. All previous research is fundamental in developing a theoretical framework from which further research has evolved to its current state.
First Generation Students and Families: Overview, Perspectives, and Characteristics of Both Groups.
With reference to first generation students, the terms “parents and families” are used interchangeably throughout the current literature that is offered concerning how first generation student are supported. However, it is important to clarify that more often than not, it may not be the specific mother or father that is supporting first generation students. In reality, this support could be a guardian, another family member, or perhaps older siblings. For the purposes of this review, parents and families will be understood to include all those in relation to the first generation student what could potentially exist in the established direct family unit of support.
It is important to acknowledge that students that identify as first generation have different characteristics than their continuing-generation peers (Acker-Ball, 2007). Research shows that they enroll in less rigorous high school curricula and are less prepared for college (Horn & Nunez 2000). Because first generation students are ill prepared for college, they often have lower degree aspirations and they tend to be less focused on attaining a college education and identifying career choices (Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998). If first generation students do enroll in college, they persist and complete four-year college degrees at lower rates than their continuing second and third-generation peers (Nunez et al., 1998). These distinctive characteristics set first generation students apart from their peers whose parents completed a college degree (Wharbuton, Bugarin, and Nunez, 2001).
In addition, first generation students are more likely to come from low SES homes (Acker-Ball, 2007). Because first generation students often must financially contribute to the expenses of the home, as well as contribute to their educational expenses, many first generation students work while matriculating to college and relay more heavily to finance their education (Sewell, 1971; Warbuton et al., 2001.; Nunez et al., 2001). Further discussion and review of literature will discuss the implications that finances play and the connection to first generation support and success. Additional characteristics of first generation students that differ from their continuing-generation peers are that they are often non-traditional students (in age), less likely to be white, non-Hispanic, and more likely to be female (Hsiaso, 1992; Thayer 2000).
Theory and Research: College Going Process (CGP) and Educational Expectations Impacted by Parents/Families of FGEN Students
When considering the current literature, much research exists that suggest and alludes to the significant role that parents and families play in promoting students’ college going (Auerbach, 2004). In reality, few families without a tradition of college going have sufficient knowledge of how to help their children navigate pathways to college (Auerbach, 2004). Auerbach, (2004) notes in her research that according to the Latino Eligibility Study, the single most important barrier to college access is the lack of instrumental knowledge of the steps need to go to college (Gandara, 1995). In addition, across the various social groups, parents are cited as one of the top three sources of college information and help for students, yet most parents hold inaccurate beliefs about crucial information about the CGP (Antonio, 2002; Post, 1990). In one example, in a nationally representative survey of Latino parents of high school students, more than two thirds lacked basic information about college eligibility and planning (Tornatsky, Cutler, & Lee 2002). The research further shows that the information gap is wide for lower SES immigrant parents who are ESL, and have specialized needs with issues regarding financial aid, undocumented status, and college life (McClafferty, McDonough, & Fann 2001).
Impact of parent and family on first generation student attitudes in CGP. Byrd and Macdonald (2005) offer that the parents and families of first generation students can serve as both motivators as well as demotivators for their students to matriculate to college and earn a four-year college degree. In their 2005 study, Byrd and Macdonald conducted a qualitative methods study seeking to define student voices and deepen understanding and improve practice within higher education. They surveyed eight participants (n=8) participants from an upper-division, undergraduate liberal arts program of a small urban university located in the Pacific Northwest (Byrd and Macdonald 2005). The participants were (a) of junior and senior status, (b) had earned an Associate of Arts degree from a community college, (c) were older than 25, and (d) were first generation college students as defined in our current study. Partially structures, 30 – 60 minute interviews were conducted with individual participants to gather data about their backgrounds and experiences as college students.
Research on first generation students is still developing, and has become more common in the last 10 years. For example, Byrd and Macdonald (2005) offered some beginning research that are importance to informing today’s work. In particular, found several themes that emerged as they interviewed their participants. The first generation students that participated in the survey shared that their own life experiences prior to college contributed, in either a positive or negative way, to the development of skills they perceived as critical to college success. Participants shared that time management, goal focus, and self-advocacy were the most important skills that they valued. As such, family motivations, either positive or negative, directly had an impact in the time management, goal focus, and self-advocacy skills that they felt were necessary in preparation for college (Byrd and Macdonald, 2005). The research suggests that first generation students, particularly younger first generation students, might be particularly at risk for college readiness, given that life experiences and being older contributed to the skills of the non-traditional first generation students. Finally, Byrd and Macdonald (2005) note in their findings the theme of self-concept. The researchers offer that those whose parents did not go to college may view themselves as less than adequate for college. Importantly, they note, first generation students often internalize this personal self-concept that they are inadequate, making additional support necessary throughout the process (Byrd and Macdonald, 2005).
Byrd and Macdonald (2005) clarify that self-concept is ”the individuals belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is” (Baumeister, 1999). While dated in nature, Rogers (1959) offers further clarification that is important in helping to understand today’s first generation student. His prior research seeks to explain the connection between self-concept and the first generation GCP. He claims that self-concept has three different components: the view you have of yourself (self-image), how much value you place on yourself (self-esteem and self-worth), and what you wish you were really like (ideal-self). Thus it appears that a significant gap exists for FGEN students compared to their continuing education peers. If FGEN students are internalizing their own personal self-concept, and its attributes, this is has larger implications with self-image, self-worth, self-esteem, and the perceived notion of what one’s ideal self could and should be. If this process is internalized, and not expressed to one’s support system, the research shows this has significant implications for the CGP for FGEN students.
Research also suggests that other significant factors come into play as parents seek to support their first generation students’ matriculation to college. As an example, with the absence of appropriate information and support, many parents unfamiliar with college life and concerned about opportunity costs of college for their family unit may construe college as a threat, and as a result, resist best-laid plans for qualified students (Auerbach, 1999, 2003). In addition, the issue of distance, and whether going far from the family unit, is said to impact the college matriculation process for first generation students (Auerbach, 2004). As a whole, given their own lack of experience with college systems, research has shown that parents express significant doubts on how their own first generation student will navigate college (Auerbach, 2004).
Alvarez (2016) conducted a significant study over 12 month as she sought to research the attitudes that exist within the Latina/o student, parents and families, and how each group impacts the CGP. In her qualitative study, Alvarez conducted interviews of Latina/o students and families of the Coachella Valley in Southern California (Alvarez, 2016). Alvarez (2016) notes that she decided upon qualitative methods to potentially capture the complexities of social interaction through the probing of emerging issues (Bogden & Bilken, 2007). In addition, Alvarez (2016) notes that a qualitative approach gave rich data that a quantitative study could not afford. Alvarez conducted 105 interviews over a 12-month period, which took place during the students’ senior year of high school.
In her research, Alvarez (2016) explores the complexities of first generation students and their families, and the complexities involved to plan, navigate, and head to college. As she discusses her research, she notes that she had significant findings that odder a glimpse into the experience for both parties. First, she notes that her research validates the significant emotional work behind the college-going process. Much of this emotional work was dependent upon student and parent familiarity with the U.S. higher education system (Alvarez, 2016). It was this familiarity, or lack thereof, of the U.S. higher education system that significantly influenced how parents and families faced emotions within the CGP (Alvarez, 2016). Next, Alvarez (2016) notes that a significant finding in her research was that the emotional journey of students and parents/families is of paramount importance. The array of emotions students and parents felt during the CGP – including happiness, frustration, and accomplishment, among others offers that both parties are motivated by the emotions that they felt (Alvarez, 2016). Emotions, she adds, are reflective of both parents/families and students’ familiarity with the CGP (Alvarez, 2016). Finally, expectations of families play a critical role in the college-going process (Alvarez, 2016). Her research suggests that varying expectations by individual parents and the family unit influence the student’s perspective of the CGP, and these expectations, in turn directly impact the student’s experience and journey to college (Alvarez, 2016). Alvarez (2016) also offers that the expectations of parents for college matriculation are directly based upon the parents’ own understanding of the purpose of college, the parents’ own personal journey, and their knowledge of their own student.
Acker-Ball (2007) offers from her research that most families of first generation students do not engage their own students in academic programs, study skill or SAT workshops, or prep courses. She does report findings that parents often were able to assist their own first generation students with homework at a younger age, and that older siblings offered critical support as well (Acker-Ball, 2007). First generation students report that their parents could often not provide academic support to them because they were not familiar with the school material and did not have the requisite skills to assist them (Acker-Ball, 2007). The research offers that the actions and assistance of the family unit impacted first generation students’ ideas and attitudes about education (Acker-Ball, 2007). In short, while not having many of the academic skills and knowledge needed by the first generation students, the parents’ and family units’ insistence about working and studying hard and earning good grades provided the needed support and encouragement that further reinforced the students’ aspirations to go to college (Acker-Ball, 2007). Parents demonstrate a real concern for their child’s future well-being, particularly in student abilities to be successful and earn a “good living” (Acker–Ball, 2007). Parents, according to Acker-Ball (2007), reinforce the need to higher education, and although they did become less involved (with school work specifically) as students grew, the attitude of parents continued to reinforce the importance of a college education.
Ceja (2004) offers research on the concept of messaging and communication, and its impact on parent perceptions for first generation students and their matriculation to college. In the study, Ceja (2004) offers context regarding the first generation Chicana student, and the role of parents and their attitudes of cultivating college aspirations. Ceja (2004) suggests that in his research, parents play a pivotal and critical role, both positive and negative, in impacting a first generation student’s matriculation to college. The study reaffirmed the notion that for many parents, attaining a college education was perceived as the only viable option that would give their children the opportunity to avoid barriers that made it difficult for parents themselves to be successful without a college degree Ceja, 2004). In a positive way, Ceja (2004) notes that through intentional support and encouragement, parents in his study were able to create what Gandara (1995) calls a “culture of possibility” for their child to attend college. According to Gandara (1995), parents and the family unit create this culture of possibility through their own stories, exchange of cultural ideals and values, and, importantly, their own faith and belief in the possibility of social mobility via a college education.
Impact of parent and family involvement on the FGEN CGP. The current literature supports the ideal that parental involvement does influence college-going rates for all students. Jerry Trusty (1998) conducted a study using national data to examine the influence of family and parenting variables on expectations regarding education. In his study, Trusty (1998) analyzed data from 14,673 young adults and their parents that participated in the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS). The NELS of 1988 database (NELS:88 NCES; CD#: NCES 96-130) tracks nearly 15,000 1988 eighth graders, with follow up surveys in 1990 (10th grade), 1992 (12th grade), and 1994 (2 years out of high school) (Cabrera and La Nasa, 2001). In the first follow-up questionnaire, students were surveyed on their perceptions, behavior, and experiences regarding school, leisure, and family (Trusty, 1998). The follow-up parent questionnaire, the survey assesses the most knowledgeable parents’ perceptions and behavior regarding their child, their child’s school, and the family (Trusty, 1998). It is important to take note that of the several national databases available to researchers, this database is best suited to examine the three tasks critical to college choice because it tracks students from the eighth grade until after high school graduation. At present, the vast explanatory potential of the NELS database has not been fully used to explain how low-income students make college attendance decisions (Cabrera and La Nasa, 2001).
In his findings, Trusty (1998) examined and reported on demographic, family, and parenting variables, and how each impacted expectations regarding their students’ education. SES status of the family unit also served as a strong connection to the educational expectations of the family for their child (Trusty, 1998). However, more important that SES, adolescents’ perceptions of parents’ personal educational support was the strongest influence on student educational expectations (Trusty, 1998). In addition, the parents themselves, and their own behavior was strongly connected to educational expectations for their student (Trusty, 1998). Finally, Trusty (1998) noted a strong connection between parent and family educational expectations, and the parents’ attendance at academic/extracurricular activities that could potentially serve to support the student (Trusty, 1998).
Further literature suggests that parental and family involvement can impact first generation students throughout the CGP. As a whole, parents who are college-educated and possess a college degree are perceived as a valuable source of information for students seeking to enter college (Ishitani, 2005; Horn and Nunez, 2000). In contrast, first generation students are less likely to consult with their parents regarding the college admission process and potential aspects of college such as course selection (Ishitani et al., 2005). Further review of the literature offers that despite the lack of interaction with their parents regarding processes related to matriculating to college, first generation students were also no more likely, and at times, less than likely, to seek assistance from teachers, counselors, principals, and others on these matters as well. Horn and Nunez (2000) suggest from their findings that a lack of information from first generation parents, schools, and family agents account for rates at which first generation students and others enroll in colleges. Finally, parental impact can significantly impact first generation student participation in academic programs, which are deemed vital to their ability to acquire proficient skills to attend college (Ishitani, 2005). King (2012) offers that there is a direct connection between parental and community participation and the college going rates of their own students, specifically those students that are potentially the first in their family to obtain a 4-year college degree.
In another quantitative study using the same NELS database as Trusty (1998), Cabrera and La Nasa (2001) examine how parent and family encouragement impacts the process of students matriculating to college. The details of the sample are identical to those of Trusky, including sample size, survey methods, and gathering of information from different touch points from the same student sample over time. After analyzing their data, Cabrera and La Nasa (2001) were able to significantly conclude that parents and family provide and offer encouragement to students during the CGP that helps and enhances the student to matriculate to college. Parental involvement is directly related to the amount of information that parents and families themselves have regarding the college process (Cabrera and La Nasa, 2001). First-hand exposure, note the researchers, to a college education greatly facilitates and impacts this access to information to the college process (Cabrera and La Nasa, 2001).
Cabrera and La Nasa (2001) suggest that college-educated parents are more likely to see the long-term benefits associated with a college degree and to communicate this to their children (Coleman, 1988). While further research is needed, Cabrera and La Nasa (2001) suggest in their findings that the data demonstrates that the lowest-SES students are also the most disadvantaged when it comes to matriculating to college. As a result of their findings, Cabrera and La Nasa (2001) offer that parental involvement in their student’s activities, as well as parental educational expectations would be enhanced if the lowest-SES parent could see a connection an inherent value between a college degree and economic benefits/social mobility.
Cabrera and La Nasa (2001) suggest with their research findings that the data affirms that college enrollment, specifically of low-SES and first generation students, requires successful completion of critical tasks (Adelman 1999; Berkner, and Chavez, 1997; Horn and Nunez, 2000). Each of these tasks must be completed through not only the merits of the first generation student, but also when he or she receives critical support and assistance (Adelman et al., 1999). Additional literature suggests that the acquisition of college qualifications, graduation from high school, and applying to college is embedded into what is known as the college-choice process (Hossler, Braxton, and Coopersmith, 1989). In each phase of the college-choice process, the high school student develops predispositions about attending college (Hossler et al., 1999) First, a high school must search for general information about college. Next, the student makes college attendance choices (Hossler et al., 1999). For this to occur, the student must secure college qualifications and graduate from high school (Hossler, 1999). Finally, as a student acquires qualifications needed for college, this is a byproduct of educational plans to attend college, as well as parental encouragement and involvement (Cabrera and La Nasa, 2001).
Finances and its impact for First Generation Parents/families, Students, and the CGP
According to Thayer (2000), family income is the greatest predictor of college enrollment for any student, even when the student’s ability is considered. Acker-Ball (2007) offers in her research that finances, specifically SES status and social class challenges, impact first generation student decisions to enroll in a college. Students suggest that many obstacles that they faced throughout childhood was due to low SES status, as well as a lack of social prestige (Acker-Ball, 2007). At the same time, many students may aspire to go to college, and know that it is an expectation of their parents and family unit. The issue, though, is how to pay for college (Acker-Ball, 2007).
Most first generation students do receive some form of financial aid; however, the majority of the students receive no direct financial provisions from their family, and have to use multiple forms of financial aid to pay for their education (Acker-Ball, 2007). King (2012) offers with her research that student and family financial resources, along with family knowledge concerning the FAFSA and the financial aid process, also have an impact and influence on a student’s decision to attend college. One study specifically of Latino students whose parents have a college degree and hold a higher SES, enrollment to a four-year college is more likely (Alvarez, 2016; Munoz & Rincon, 2015). Cabrera and La Nasa (2001) offer that parental education also conditions the extent to which parents are knowledgeable about college qualification criteria and with financial strategies to pay for college. In another study, Ikenberry and Hartle (1998) found that the amount and quality of information on financing the college experience varies proportionally with SES status. Overall, the researchers claim, upper-income families were more knowledgeable about how to pay for college (Ikenberry & Hartle, 1998).
To further study the financial implications, Ishitani (2005) conducted a study to investigate longitudinal educational attainments using the NCES national data sets noted in previous studies. This study further divided the broadly defined group of first-generation students into two subgroups. The first subgroup of first-generation students included students with parents whose highest educational attainment was either a high school diploma or less. The second subgroup included students whose parent(s) attended colleges, but never attained a bachelor’s degree (Ishitani, 2005). Similar to other researchers, Ishitani (2005) tracked the same cohort over time, beginning with student participation as 8th graders in 1988, and concluded in 2000 when most participants would be of age to graduate from college. Based upon his study, Ishitani (2015) was able to conclude that as he tracked the same cohort over time, financial aid and assistance has been shown to both positively and negatively impact first generation student persistence during their first and second years of college. Grants in aid, he concluded, had a positive effect on first generation student persistence, and loans, in contrast, negatively impacted the ability of first generation students to remain in college (Ishitani, 2005).
Theory and Research: Impact of Parents and Families on the First Generation Student Transition to/Experience within College
Equally as important to the literature review is not only the role that parents play in helping their students go to college, but also to remain in college, be successful, and be among the first generation in their family to earn a four-year college degree. According to King (2012), research supports that parental involvement does play a role with the college rates of students, and their ability to attend college. Concerning first generation college students, if neither their parent nor guardian has attended college or completed a four-year college degree, this directly influences their ability to enter college and, importantly, remain in college (King, 2012).
When considering factors such as educational expectations and support from families and schools, first generation students have more challenges and difficulty navigating the college environment (Acker-Ball, 2007). Many students do not know what questions to ask and to obtain necessary information and resources to pursue a college degree, and are at greater risk of attrition than their continuing-generation peers (Hsiao, 1992). In addition, first generation students lack time management techniques, underestimate the financial costs associated with college life, and have little knowledge of policies, procedures, and “unwritten rules” of higher education institutions (Hsiao, 1992; Thayer, 2000). The ability of a first generation student to earn a four-year college degree is significantly related to their own parents’ education and SES; moreover, this lack of exposure and knowledge further impacts each student and their ability to aspire to persist in college (Trotter, 2001; Terenzini, Springer, Yeager, Pascarella & Nora, 1996)
Another significant challenge first generation students face while in college is their departure from the working pattern already established in their homes (Acker-Ball, 2007). Because their ability to secure a good job is essential to assist with the financial well-being of the family unit, the students failure to fully contribute while in college significantly impacts the amount of positive reinforcement that students receive while pursuing a college education (Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998). As a consequence, first generation students typically do not receive support, such as words of encouragement and general interest, from parents, family, and friends, especially those first generation students who still live at home (Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998; Hsiao, 1992). Billson and Terry (1982) suggest this lack of support not received from first generation parents and family members is due in part to the attitudes they share about education. First generation students’ attitudes while in college are less congruent than those of their parents, as students place greater significance in gaining and obtaining an education. This disconnect and lack of congruence often contributes to first generation student vulnerability to leave school (Billson & Terry, 1982).
First generation students themselves share that they often feel significantly different from continuing generation students about being prepared for college (Pratt & Scaggs, 1989). Pratt and Scaggs (1989) conducted a study of all entering first-time freshmen (n=1035) during the first week of school at the University of Maine. Of the 1,035 freshmen students surveyed, 27%, or 278, were first generation college students as defined for the purposes of this study (Pratt & Scaggs, 1989). In their findings, the researchers note that along with feeling different in terms of preparation, first generation students appeared to be substantially more committed to attending and succeeding at the University of Maine than their continuing education peers (Pratt & Scaggs, 1989). First generation students in the study also shared in the study that college attendance appeared less important to their parents than to those of their continuing education peers. Finally, the findings of their study confirmed that during their entry and transition into college, first generation students are more likely to limit their aspirations to only a bachelor’s degree, and to not pursue further graduate study (Pratt and Scaggs, 1989).
Longwell-Grice (2008) offer that first generation students significantly struggle between family expectations and institutional expectations. Their research suggests that the majority of first generation students come to campus solely to take classes, know only a small part of campus, and have little involvement with faculty (Longwell-Grice & Longwell-Grice, 2008). First generation students also suggested in their study that they felt “busy faculty” were not interested in “wasting time” with them, and this led to a lack of implied student support due to their family histories and backgrounds (Longwell-Grice, et al., 2008). Students suggest that they experience a significant struggle to negotiate all expectations of them, and their past and future academic successes (Longwell-Grice et al., 2008). While share bewilderment that they had been successful enough at school to make it to college, but lacked the cultural capital to make their way to and/or past faculty and educators that they viewed as the “gatekeepers” to their educational experience (Longwell-Grice et al., 2008). In the study, Longwell-Grice (2008) offer that successful first generation students needed active mentors, in addition to their own family support system, to persist and be successful in college. In addition, first generation students expressed that any success they found success through the education system was generally dependent upon the formation of genuinely supportive relationships with mentors (Longwell-Grice et al., 2008). This being said, students also reported that finding these supportive relationships were difficult, as they often had to be the initiator of the process (Longwell-Grice et al., 2008).
Barry, Hundley and Cho (2009) conducted a similar study that analyzed the specific nature of parent and family support of first generation students, and its effectiveness in helping these students in college. Using a student survey conducted at four universities across the country (n=1,539), the disclosure of first generation student experience was analyzed and compared. The targets of students’ disclosure, including family, friends from home, friends at school, and professionals at school also were examined (Barry et al., 2009). The study found first generation students have complex social networks, and that they exhibit lower levels of disclosure of their college experience than their continuing generation peers (Barry et al., 2009). In addition, first generation students reported significant less disclosure of college experiences with family, friends from home, and friends at school than their continuing education peers (Barry et al., 2009). This, in turn, means that first generation students have less relevant social support during their transition to college, and are less likely to disclose their college experiences with others (Barry et al., 2009). This lack of disclosure may be one aspect of their experience that is more difficult for the first generation student population, and offers implications for potential intervention measures in the future (Barry et al., 2009). Finally, first generation students have the potential for greater social isolation due to this lack of family support with the college experience itself (Barry et al., 2009).
College aspirations, expectations, as well as orientations toward learning play a major role in the development and college persistence of first generation college students (Penrose, 2002). Penrose (2002) offers from her research that first generation students differ from their continuing education students in both their social/family circumstances as well as their academic preparation. First generation students approach college with weaker academic preparation, have fewer academic and economic resources to draw upon, and, different than their continuing education peers, must apportion their time and energy among multiple responsibilities off-campus (Penrose, 2002). Interestingly, while first generation students are found to differ from their continuing education peers in general academic prepared ness, in their retention rates and in their perceptions of their academic literacy skills, Penrose (2002) found that they do not differ from their continuing education peers with respect to college performance.
Penrose (2002) also offers that first generation students’ self-perceptions represent critical factors in their college experience, underscoring the importance of helping students forge identities as members of the academic communities on campus (Penrose, 2002). Her research suggests the importance of first generation students making themselves comfortable in an unfamiliar environment where they spend little time, and that these students must derive support, confidence, and inspiration from a thin network of intermittent connections to the university community (Penrose, 2002). In short, what distinguishes first generation students from others in college is not their level of achievement but their university experience (Penrose, 2002). Further literature suggests that first generation students are far more likely to leave the university due to dissatisfaction with their experience than because of academic failure (Tinto, 1993). Penrose (2002) offers that parental experience in the academic domain may be the critical factor, and may shape students’ overall performance, interaction with faculty and other students, their degree of engagement in extracurricular activities, and possibly the course and majors that first generation student select.
First Generation students/families and communication patterns impacting college going experience. Since literature exists that offers that a gap might exist for first generation students and their necessary support when transitioning to the college environment, it is important to examine the nature of the communication itself. Prior research had found that students whose parents attended college begin college with more understanding of the higher education process than do first generation students (Engle, 2007). While undergoing the transition into college, parents pass on knowledge with advice and emotional support that help students when they encounter new challenges, especially during the beginning part of the college experience (Pabulsa and Gauvain (2017). Additional literature offers that when planning for and beginning college, young adults benefit from interacting with parents and others who have college experience (Hurtado & Gauvain 1997; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh & Whitt 2005). These interactions can ultimately enhance a student’s awareness, understanding, and proficiency in the codes of conduct, rules and practices – or cultural capital – of the higher education setting (Bordieu, 1973). Engle (2007) concludes that these noted informal learning experiences are more available and accessible for students whose parents attended college than for first generation students.
Pabulsa and Gauvain (2017) conducted a study of 344 first-year college students (n=344), 58.4% (n=201) of which were first generation college students that attended a public university in Southern California. The mean age of the participants was 18 years, 66% were female, and 50.6% came from low-income families. The sample was racially/ethnically diverse, with 35.2% Asian American, 37.5 Latino American, 14.8% White, 4.1% Black/African American and 8% no response. For the study, students were sent a survey by the authors during their first three weeks of school seeking background information and the nature of parent/family and student communication having started college (Pabulsa & Gauvain, 2017). Pabulsa and Gauvain (2017) offer that continuing generation students found the conversations they were having with parents about college were of higher quality and more helpful than those of first generation students within their own support system. The researchers were able to find a direct correlation between those students that had higher-quality conversations with their parents to higher first-year GPAs among students (Pabulsa & Gauvain, 2017). Much of the research seems to point to parents, and how and to what degree they are used for support. Further research suggests that first generation student view parents as encouragers and inspirations for the college process, which continuing generation students view parents as “instrumental, rather than emotional, resources” (Nichols and Islas, 2015).
While research and literature suggest that first generation families may lack knowledge of higher education systems, additional literature offers that first generation parents and families offer essential social and emotional support to their students while transitioning into the college environment. Ricks (2016) offers in his study of North Carolina State University first generation students that students reported finding quite a bit of emotional support from their own families by making an effort to call and connect with those at home. Others reported feeling supported and satisfied with frequently visiting home on the weekends, and also receiving various amounts of financial support when needed (Ricks, 2016). This informal acts of support, Ricks (2016) suggests, help support students through an uncomfortable adjustment during the first few weeks of school. In addition, first generation students reported receiving significant support from other members of their family support system, such as older siblings and cousins that had already graduated from college (Ricks, 2016). Once first generation students were able to make this connections with various family members, they found it easier and more comfortable to seek additional support from college counselors, advisors, mentors, and professors (Ricks, 2016). Ricks (2016) was able to conclude with his study that higher education professionals were helpful and significant, and provided critical resources to first generation students during the beginning states of their transition into college. Students singled out feelings of empathy and authenticity as being regularly offered and important, as it offered a support system similar to their own family unit (Ricks, 2016).
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