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First and Second-Generation College Students: A Comparison of Their Engagement and Intellectual Development

Pike & Kuh, 2005 / The Journal of Higher Education / May 2005


diverse group sitting on grass

Students today are different from their counterparts of three and four decades ago. Women have outnumbered men for more than 15 years, and the participation rates for members of historically underrepresented groups have made impressive gains. Many of these “new” students are the first in their families to attend college (Carnevale & Fry, 2000; Schroeder, in press; Terenzini, Springer, Yeager, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996). It is important that these students succeed in college. The baccalaureate degree is an avenue of upward social mobility, representing the single most important rung in the educationalattainment ladder in terms of economic benefits (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). In addition, many of the 10 million jobs that will be created in the next decade will require skills and competencies beyond those acquired in high school (Callan, 2000). Unfortunately, a disproportionately low number of first-generation students succeed in college. According to Warburton, Bugarin, and Nuñez (2001), there is a 15% gap between the 3-year persistence rates of first- and second-generation students (73% and 88%, respectively). Although first-generation college students are less likely to persist and graduate, surprisingly little is known about their college experiences and the ways those experiences compare to the experiences of students who have college-educated parents. Several powerful autobiographical accounts provide compelling portraits of the experiences of first-generation college students (see Lara, 1992; Rendon, 1992; Rodriguez, 1982), but only a handful of studies have systematically examined the experiences of first-generation students (Attinasi, 1989; Billson & Terry, 1982; Richardson & Skinner, 1992; Terenzini et al., 1994; Terenzini et al., 1996). Even the detailed analysis by Warburton, Bugarin, and Nuñez (2001) failed to examine the nature of first-generation students’ college experiences. The present research addresses the gaps in the literature by examining the college experiences of first-generation and second-generation students to see how their experiences affect their learning and intellectual development. The term “first-generation college student” has been defined in a variety of ways. In this study, we will use it to describe a college or university student from a family where no parent or guardian has earned a baccalaureate degree (Choy, 2001). The term “second-generation student” is used to refer to students whose parents or guardians earned at least one baccalaureate degree.

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