Parental Influences on Low-Income, First-Generation Students’ Motivation on the Path to College

Mitchell & Jaeger / The Journal of Higher Education / September 2016

Reports abound about the challenges that first-generation, low-income students face on the path to higher education. Yet despite these barriers, millions of low-income, first-generation students persevere. What or who influences their motivation to “stay the course” to higher education? Using self-determination theory as a framework, this cross-case study highlighted the motivational experiences of seven low-income, first-generation students and their parents on the path to college. Specifically, the study explored how parents augmented—or at times, undermined—students’ self-determination toward college, as evidenced by students’ feelings of relatedness, competency, and autonomy. Results showed that students’ self-determination was enhanced when parents were involved in college planning, served as positive examples, set high academic standards early, and fostered students’ sense of career volition. Motivation was undermined when families limited students’ choices, did not set clear expectations for college going, provided little feedback, or emphasized family obligations. The findings have the potential to facilitate deeper understanding of the impact of parents as motivational partners in the college access process.