Is the “First-Generation Student” Term Useful for Understanding Inequality? The Role of Intersectionality in Illuminating the Implications of an Accepted—Yet Unchallenged—Term

Review of Research in Education / April 2020

First-generation students (FGSs) have received a great deal of attention in education research, practice, and policy. The difficulty of understanding and subsequently addressing the various and persistent configurations of inequality associated with FGSs lies with the complicated yet obscure state of the FGS term itself. Leaving the term unquestioned limits the capacity to grasp how these students’ backgrounds and identities shape their decisions and relationships to others and to institutions, and risks reproducing the very inequality that education researchers wish to mitigate. This chapter begins to resolve these conflicts by offering a critical analysis and discussion—grounded by the concept of intersectionality—of the empirical literature on FGSs. We identify and discuss the dominant and problematic manner in which the FGS term has been operationalized in research and discuss the implications of their findings. We end with a discussion on emerging topics that extends the consideration of research on FGSs beyond the imaginary, traditional boundaries of college campuses.