Preparing for our First-Generation Journey

Ruth Holt, Columbia State Community College / The Center / February 23, 2024

Columbia State Community College student


Columbia State Community College (Columbia State), the first in the state of the 13 Tennessee community colleges that joined the Network Member Class of 2023, has been a presence in southern middle Tennessee since 1966. A series of expectations on this new, concentrated initiative is shaping Columbia State’s journey and leading college staff to exploring and examining its student population and practices.

Anecdotally, Columbia State knows that its presence has changed the lives of families and their destinies. The data shows it as well... but not nearly to the extent to which we would like.

During our initial examination and exploration, we expected:

• A clear definition for a first-generation student. Unfortunately, this did not exist in current or past policy. Financial Aid applications for federal dollars or scholarships provided some context, but the self-reported data was inconsistent and unattainable at best.

• Data was being collected. Columbia State has a rich, robust collection of much data; however, no single department had collected validated and consistent data throughout the college’s history with the exception of the TRIO program (Student Support Services) that was initially funded in 2010.

• College Attainment Numbers would indicate that most of the region’s citizenry had completed a post-secondary credential especially with 50+ years of rich history of access to higher education. While there has been improvement in college completion, recent data collections from the US Census and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission indicates that only one of the counties served by Columbia State exceeds state and national levels of college completion at the bachelors’ level. In fact, several of the smaller, more rural counties have college completion rates below 15%, well below the national average of 35.7% and the state average of 30.6%.

Columbia State has just embarked on this journey. Upon examination of current resources, Columbia State has determined:

• A willing and enthusiastic response from faculty and staff for dedicated support for first-generation scholars.

• A Relational model for advising that extends and strengthens the connection between Success Advisors, faculty advisors, and students.

• TRIO practices and support services as a tried and true model for first-generation scholars of all ages.

• A dedicated office for Belonging and Student Resources that facilitates activities and resources to address student barriers to success.

 Exploration of effective programming, validated data points, and a confirmed definition of a first-generation student as well as a culture of continuous improvement are in the forefront of efforts as a result of Columbia State’s self-examination. Columbia State expects that the collaboration, implementation, and awareness of these efforts will transform the experience of a first-generation student.


The First-Generation College Celebration provided an excellent platform to launch our focus on first-generation students, and their perspectives of the college-going experience:

“I am proud to be the first in my family to attend college because I want an opportunity for a better job and more advanced placement opportunities in my chosen career field.” - Mackenzie Bivens

“Being a first-generation college student is important to me because it has allowed me to better understand myself, the skills I possess, and the world around me. To be a better communicator, coworker, and future employee. It is also important to me, as college can be difficult to navigate but Columbia State has helped me every single step of the way.” - Rob Beard

“My name is Levi and I am a first-generation student here at Columbia State. College is all about opportunities but I can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on them. Thanks to scholarships, I have had opportunities that would otherwise be closed to me. I’m proud to be the first to represent my family in college.” - Levi Fritsch

For more information on Columbia State Community College's approach, please visit their website here.