National Analysis Finds Support for First-generation Students at Four-Year Institutions Varies Widely

The Center / October 04, 2018

NASPA analysis finds that 80% of institutions surveyed now identify first-generation status at the point of admission, but variation exists in how outcomes are measured and supports are delivered.

Washington, D.C. – October 4, 2018 – Today, the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA and The Suder Foundation, has released a mixed-method analysis of four-year institutions, which finds that while the vast majority of colleges now identify first-generation status, conflating terminology about first-generation students with other student subgroups limits the types of direct support available to this critical student population.

“First-generation students now make up a third of students nationwide, yet only 27 percent will earn a bachelor’s degree within four years of entering college, lagging far behind their continuing-generation peers,” said Sarah E. Whitley, Senior Director of the Center for First-generation Student Success. “While we know first-generation students are capable and making significant contributions, services for students are in flux across institutions today. This report seeks to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how institutions are supporting first-generation students, surfacing practices and proven approaches that can improve student experiences and advance college completion.”

Key findings of this research, released today in First-generation Student Success: A Landscape Analysis of Programs and Services at Four-year Institutions, include:

  • Eighty percent of four-year institutions surveyed now identify first-generation status at the point of admission.
  • However, institutions are inconsistent in sharing that information across campus and monitoring outcomes for first-generation students. Only 61 percent of four-year institutions track outcomes for these students; fewer than half (41 percent) use data to inform support programs for them; and only 28 percent store information on first-generation status in systems that faculty can access and use.
  • The most successful campuses are taking an “asset-based approach”--one that recognizes the substantial contributions of first-generation students to academics and campus life--to developing programs that utilize the inherent strengths of first-generation students to improve belonging, efficacy, and overall outcomes.
  • Nevertheless, these efforts are often hindered by resource constraints and inconsistent definitions for first-generation status across programs. Utilizing a more uniform definition of “first-generation student” consistently on campuses would allow for recognition of the vast intersectionality between first-generation students, scaling of services, decreased duplicative efforts and more accurate benchmarking internally and externally.

This analysis also found that, while investment of resources is critical, institutions can improve services through better networking of existing support programs and offices. For example, Florida State University and Chapman University both offer highly-successful, networked approaches to summer bridge programs. Florida State brings more than 400 students to campus for a one-week orientation, followed by six weeks of classes for credit, at no cost to the student. At Chapman, the bridge program focuses solely on transition and acclimation, and is provided for free to students through a partnership between residence life and the first-year experience.

Other institutions are providing wrap-around supports that may not require substantial funding or staffing, such as peer or alumni mentoring programs.

“We’re sending students into environments that were not created with them in mind. We don’t have to hold their hands every day, but we have to walk beside them. Not because they’re at a deficit, but because the institution is not nimble enough to effectively give them what they need to be successful,” said Kaye Monk-Morgan, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs and former Director of TRIO Upward Bound Math Science Center at Wichita State University in the report.

“This report provides a clarion call for higher education leaders and practitioners to think critically about how they leverage investments to support first-generation students on their campuses,” said Dr. Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA. “As more institutions identify and support first-generation students, they are increasingly recognizing the substantial assets these individuals bring to campus: grit, ambition, fresh viewpoints that enhance the broader academic community. This report serves as a practical guide for institutions to call for and enact change that ensures all students, regardless of their college-going history, are prepared for life beyond higher education.”

The Center for First-generation Student Success performed research for this report in partnership with Entangled Solutions. Phase 1 of the research comprised interviews with 78 faculty, administrators, and leaders representing 45 four-year institutions; 15 thought leaders at 12 student success nonprofits; and 40 first-generation students through focus groups at eight institutions. Phase 2, the quantitative component, involved a nationwide survey of 371 faculty, administrators, and thought leaders across 273 four-year institutions.

The Center initially set out to study both 2-year and 4-year institutions, but in the course of the research, it became clear that the two types of institutions have distinct processes and experiences around first-generation students. The Center will continue to examine the experiences of first-generation students across institution sectors over the course of the coming year.

The Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA and The Suder Foundation, is the premier source of evidence-based practices, professional development, and knowledge creation for the higher education community to advance the success of first-generation students. The Center, launched in 2017, is emerging as a leader for scholarly discussion, information sharing, networking, and program development.

NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education is the leading association for the advancement, health, and sustainability of the student affairs profession. We serve a full range of professionals who provide programs, experiences, and services that cultivate student learning and success in concert with the mission of our colleges and universities.

Jenna Talbot, 760.390.6978, [email protected]