Service-Learning and Persistence of Low-Income, First-Generation College Students: An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

"If I hadn't started working with this program, I wouldn't be here right now. I woulda dropped out a long time ago."--Jose

At the time he made this statement, Jose was a junior at one of the most selective private universities in the United States. But unlike many of his fellow students, Jose's parents are agricultural workers who barely finished middle school and whose annual family income is less than the cost of one year's tuition at his college. During the summer after his first year in college, Jose got involved in a university service-learning program, working with local high school students in a low-income neighborhood. By his own admission, his involvement with this program was one of the main reasons he graduated with a college degree from this institution, rather than dropping out and going back home.

Having a college degree has grown considerably more important over the last several decades, as society shifts from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy and as the earnings gap between high school and college graduates grows (Levin, Belfield, Muennig, & Rouse, 2007). Yet attrition remains a critical problem for colleges and universities, as roughly 50 percent of students who enter postsecondary education do not complete a degree (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Of particular concern, low-income first-generation students (LIFG)--whose parents are not affluent and did not go to college--consistently drop out of postsecondary institutions at higher rates than middle- to upper-income students with college-educated parents (Ishitani & DesJardins, 2002). For example, first-generation students at 4-year institutions are twice as likely as students whose parents had a bachelor's degree to drop out of college before their second year. Even accounting for factors such as working full-time, financial aid status, gender, and race/ethnicity, first-generation status is still a significant predictor of a student leaving before his or her second year (Chen, 2005).

Retention, Persistence, and LIFG Students

Over the last several decades, numerous studies have explored factors impacting the college persistence of LIFG students. Reasons cited for the disparity in educational attainment range from academic underpreparation, discrimination, feelings of alienation, and difficulty adjusting to campus culture, to work and family responsibilities, financial and structural barriers, and lack of support (Ramos-Sanchez & Nichols, 2007; Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996). Accordingly, educators search for strategies to address these obstacles, which invariably lead to educational and societal inequity.

While many statistics are available on the characteristics and lower success rates of LIFG students as well as the barriers they face, fewer studies examine the factors and strategies that contribute to their college success (Pike & Kuh, 2005). One early study (Richardson & Skinner, 1992) identified student strategies for postsecondary achievement that involved "scaling down" the physical, social, and psychological dimensions of going to college by finding comfortable spaces on campus, developing peer and faculty/staff support networks, and centering their experience around a particular program or department. Leadership experience, ability to cope with racism, and demonstrated community service were also found to be positive predictors of GPA for first-generation students of color (Ting, 2003).

Especially interesting, the influence that a particular experience has on an academic or cognitive outcome appears to differ for first-generation versus other students. For instance, first-generation students benefited more from engaging in peer interactions and participation in academic/classroom and extracurricular activities than other students, in terms of their critical thinking, degree plans, internal locus of attribution for academic success, learning for self-understanding, and preference for higher-order cognitive tasks (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004). …