Every Learner Everywhere

What Is a First-Generation Student Anyway?: The Confusing Landscape of Definitions

Definitions of first-generation college students are almost as ubiquitous as the programs designed to support them, and, depending on who is counting, first generation can include between 22 and 77 percent of U.S. college students.

For example, an NCES research brief defines first-generation students as when neither parent or guardian attended college at all. In contrast, a landscape analysis by the Center for First-Generation Student Success found that the most common definition was a broadly inclusive one based on a parent obtaining a four-year degree. In that case, students with a parent who has some college but no degree, or a parent who earned an associate’s degree, would be first generation.

Another common approach is no definition at all. In the Center’s survey, 73 percent of respondents said their institution has a formal definition of first generation, but 12 percent were unsure. Even where a definition is established, it may not be consistently applied across all programs. A recent case of the University of Pennsylvania suing a student for fraud hinged on whether multiple supports and scholarships offered to her had consistent definitions and whether the relevant family member was her birth mother or her foster parents.

Students may not recognize themselves as first generation

That case highlights how students are in a position of identifying themselves as first generation, a term they are unlikely to encounter outside of a higher education context. They may be reluctant to highlight their differences from supposedly “typical” students. Others may not recognize themselves in the term or will assume they can’t be first generation if an older sibling, the aunt who raised them, or a biological parent they have little contact with went to college.

“First-gen students often are unaware of their first-gen identity until later in life,” says Sarah Whitley, Vice President, Center for First-generation Student Success at The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. “They understand they have a particular racial or ethnic background or that they are from a lower-income family or other identities that they have navigated their entire lives.”

For example, Julianne Castillo, a 26-year-old senior at the University of Hawai‘i – West O‘ahu isn’t sure if she should characterize herself as first generation. Her mother earned a nursing certificate in the Philippines, and her father has some time in college but no degree. They couldn’t afford to support Castillo’s education, so she took four years off to save money for college. “I feel like I’m kind of in the middle,” she says.

Even when students learn about first-gen programming, they may not be enthusiastic about it. “Often, first-gen identity is secondary and we have to work to get students to seek resources for that identity,” says Whitley. “Some students want to celebrate that identity. They want it to be central and forward facing. Others are still in that space of, ‘That’s one more label, and I don’t know if I need any more labels in my life.’”

Bundling first generation with racial and ethnic groups is misleading

In part because of the fluid definitions around first-generation students and programs, there is a tendency to conflate the term with low income or with racially minoritized students. Not all first-generation students are Pell eligible, and not all Black students are the first in their families to go to college.

“We need to stop conflating every identity together,” says Whitley. “People assume first gen means low income or first gen means Black, and then all the data is a mess. We’re not doing the work of disaggregating data and understanding the actual needs of specific populations.”

Intersectional work depends on understanding first generation better

Similarly, an Advising Success Network report on affirming student identities in higher education says, “First-generation college students have complex, intersectional identities, but it is a common misconception to equate being a first-generation college student with being low income . . . . It is critical to name first generation, low income, and social class as separate identities, to prompt deeper student discussion about the ways lived experiences can be different and yet intersect.”

The NASPA report cited above points out that where first-generation student support programs are housed — with cultural affairs or with financial aid, for example — can reinforce the impression that those programs are meant for minoritized or poverty-affected students. Some colleges and universities may resist developing first-generation supports because they believe programs for minoritized students have the issue covered.

Emphasizing the need for intersectional approaches to work with first-generation students, Whitley adds, “some students feel when they get to college, ‘I don’t get this place. I don’t understand the complexities of the bureaucracy.’ They often blame that on other identities besides being first gen and then have to learn there are supports and resources. It’s not a negative part of who you are. It’s an identity learned later in life.”

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