First-Generation Students’ Experiences During the COVID-19 Pandemic

SERU Consortium / August 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has negative impacts on first-generation students enrolled at large public research universities, according to the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium survey of 28,198 undergraduate students conducted May through July 2020 at nine universities. In the survey, 26% of respondents (n = 7,233) identified as first-generation students (those whose parents have not earned a bachelor’s degree).

First-generation students were more likely than continuing-generation students to experience financial hardships during the pandemic, including lost wages from family members, lost wages from on- or off-campus employment, and increased living and technology expenses. Compared to continuing-generation students, first-generation students are nearly twice as likely to be concerned about paying for their education in fall 2020.

Furthermore, first-generation students were also less likely to live in safe environments free from abuse (physical, emotional, drug, or alcohol) and more likely to experience food and housing insecurity. First-generation students also experienced higher rates of mental health disorders compared to their peers.

The results of this study suggest that first-generation students experienced more challenges adapting to online instruction compared to continuing-generation students, including encountering obstacles related to lack of adequate study spaces and lack of technology necessary to complete online learning. Compared to continuing-generation students, first-generation students were also less likely to be able to meet during scheduled virtual class times. As institutional leaders look forward to the fall 2020 semester, the authors encourage them to consider the impact different instructional modalities may have in perpetuating existing disparities for first-generation students.