March 22, 2018

What Do You Know About First-Gen Students? | From the Bell Tower

Academic libraries may target their services to special communities within the institution, such as international students or first-year students, but first generation students are often overlooked.

Some colleges and universities, and perhaps community colleges in particular, are magnets for first generation college students. At other institutions, perhaps the more elite ones, a student who is the first person in their family to attend college is a rarity. We tend to give less thought to first generation students as a special population needing additional services, but what the data and stories tell us is that they may be the most at-risk students we serve. As a first generation student myself, I know that the first year, in which the transition from high school to college takes place, is the most risky of all, and it is when most first generation students are likely to leave and never return. One might think that higher education institutions would pay particular attention to retaining their first generation students, but too often, that is not the case. Those of us working in higher education know little about these students and their special needs—and that’s where the challenge begins.

One in three

Like most academic librarians, I pay less attention to first generation students than I should. I became more aware of the issue when I was asked by a senior administrator to gather some research on the impact of financial assistance, or the loss of it, on the retention of first generation students. I was surprised by the amount of research on these students, most of it documenting the great likelihood they will fail to persist to graduation without significant institutional support. By coincidence, as I was working on this project, I came across an essay about first generation students and how they should be thought of as pioneers, not problems. After all, they are trying to break new ground in their families. According to this essay, one in three new college students is first generation, though that seems hard to believe—that’s a lot of first generation students. Given the growth in our immigrant population and broader access to higher education, perhaps that number is not exaggerated.

Simpler times

Thinking back to when I was a first generation student, so too were many of my friends. We came from decent high schools and two-parent families. Higher education was reasonably affordable, and while most of us commuted and held part-time jobs, we all had a good shot at making it to graduation—and to my best recollection, only one of us actually dropped out and never returned. Still, as first generation students we were challenged to adapt to the stress of college, and our parents really had no experience to help guide us through the journey. To our advantage, we had access to more full-time faculty who could advise us, we generally had little stress about getting jobs or paying back loans, and we certainly lived a far more distraction-free existence. Being a first-gen student then was hardly the challenge it is today.

No longer the great equalizer

Today, there are even more strikes against these students even before they set foot on campus, and according to this report what we are seeing is a class divide in higher education. It offers this startling statistic: Fewer than 30 percent of students in the bottom quarter of household incomes even enroll in a four-year school, and of those who do, fewer than half graduate. Affluent students or those whose parents went to college are far more likely to succeed than first generation students who come from low-income families. They attend lower performing high schools, live in one-parent families, and have more stresses, primarily dealing with significant loans, and a much weaker support system. Adding it all together, for first generation students, higher education is no longer the great equalizer. It is more like a filter that determines who will succeed with a diploma and who will end up with little besides loan debt for their time spent in the classroom. Just having parents who went to college and are upper or middle-class can make a significant difference. Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials. How did this happen? It’s never been easy being a first generation student, but in our more economically divided society, the challenges are simply magnified in ways no college or university could anticipate.

Know your first gens

Just as they recognized that all first-year students need special attention, higher education institutions need to develop better support programs for their first generation students. No doubt some already have, but more needs to be done to keep these at-risk students from being disenfranchised from higher education. Academic librarians know that doing well with research assignments can help students achieve the success that keeps them motivated to persist. Adapting to the library research environment can be particularly difficult for first generation students, especially when the school districts they come from increasingly offer no access to K-12 libraries. There is an opportunity here for academic librarians to take up the cause of the first generation student, demonstrating just one more way in which we add value to our institutions.

To further that cause, please know that ACRL has just announced the next phase of its academic libraries value initiative, thanks to support from an IMLS grant. Now, academic librarians can obtain professional development that will enable participants to demonstrate their value at the local institutional level. (Disclosure: I am the current president of ACRL). Because there is a competitive process to participate with an institutional team, applicants will need to identify a value-focused project that will be accomplished on their campus. Applications are due by Friday, March 8, 2013. First generation students could make an excellent subject for further action research, by demonstrating how academic librarians contribute to their retention and success—or what we need to do to help make that happen. Too often, I hear academic librarians agonizing over the lack of new ideas for research. Think first generation students.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Adrian J. says:

    This is a very useful reminder. It’s a reality in other countries as well. I work at a Polytechnic library (equivalent to community college) in New Zealand, and we have many first generation students. These students often need a lot of help with how to find and evaluation information, as well as how to write in an academic format. As librarians, we are a key player in ensuring the success of first generation students.