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

Article excerpt

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 educational-attainment 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 Nunez (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 Nunez (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.


In large part, first-generation students' lower persistence and graduation rates, and their lower scores on standardized assessment measures, are the result of differences in the precollege characteristics of first- and second-generation students. For example, first-generation students tend to come from families with lower incomes and have lower levels of engagement in high school (Terenzini et al., 1996). Both of these characteristics are related to success in college. Anticipatory socialization also appears to be a precursor to success in college (Attinasi, 1989). Whereas finding a way to become acculturated into and manage the challenges of college is very important for first-generation students, acculturation tends to be a given for second-generation students (Terenzini et al., 1994). Evidence about the role of educational aspirations, another form of anticipatory socialization, is mixed. Billson and Terry (1982) found no differences in the educational aspirations of first- and second-generation students. Terenzini and his colleagues (1996), however, found that first-generation students had lower educational aspirations than their second-generation counterparts did.

Several aspects of first-generation students' college experiences also appear to affect success in college, even after controlling for precollege characteristics. For example, first-generation students are less likely to live on campus, to develop relationships with faculty members, and to perceive faculty as being concerned about their development; they also work more hours off campus (Richardson & Skinner, 1992; Terenzini et al. …