Luck, Love and Legitimation: First-Generation College Graduates’ Attributions for Success in the Context of Unequal Educational Outcomes

Burns / Sociology Between the Gaps: Forgotten and Neglected Topics / December 2021

college grad and parents

This article explores the reasons first-generation college graduates offered for their noteworthy and disparate level of educational attainment, specifically relative to the attainment of their family of origin, an area of potential relational conflict. How first-generation graduates explain/attribute their success and the limited educational attainment of their family of origin not only reflects family relations but also impacts them in potentially important ways. A qualitative interpretive analysis was applied to open-ended survey data from a sample of 1st gen college graduates (N=317), diverse by race, gender, age and institution type, while this same data was also coded/quantified by attribution type (i.e., dispositional vs situational). The thematic and attributional analyses integrated and presented here reveal a tension between individual investment in the notion of meritocracy and the competing investment in a set of family relationships, relationships that may have played a critical role in motivating and supporting that graduate’s success. The type of attributions that graduates made for educational attainment varied by specific graduate-family relationship (i.e., parents vs siblings), with graduates more likely to view their siblings as individually accountable for their limited educational attainment, while forwarding more situational attributions for the limited attainment of parents. The authors argue that graduates manage the deep contradictions posed by ideologies of merit against family/kinship values by adopting an attributional strategy that takes into account important familial relationships and favors relationship-enhancing attributions over distress-maintaining ones.