Prospective First-Generation College Students: Meeting Their Needs through Social Cognitive Career Theory

By Gibbons, Melinda M.; Shoffner, Marie F. | Professional School Counseling, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Prospective First-Generation College Students: Meeting Their Needs through Social Cognitive Career Theory


Gibbons, Melinda M., Shoffner, Marie F., Professional School Counseling


First-generation students, or students whose parents did not attend college, represent 27% of all graduating high school students. They have unique needs that separate them from other students and that must be addressed in counseling. This article examines how school and career counselors can help these students through the use of Social Cognitive Career Theory. This theory and its focus on self-efficacy, outcome expectations, barriers, and goals can help with career and academic decision-making. A case example working with a high school junior is provided as an example of how this theory can assist this population. Implications for future research and counseling strategies are suggested as well.

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One of the many duties that high school counselors perform is assisting with the career development of their students. School counselors generally agree that all students need to understand the relationship between interests, abilities, and the world of work, and how to identify and act on information pertaining to furthering their education (Barker & Satcher, 2000). In addition, the American School Counseling Association recently released its new model for school counseling programs (ASCA, 2003) based on the National Standards (ASCA, 1997). Within this National Model, it is suggested that school counselors should promote programs designed to enhance the academic, career, and personal/social domains of students. The model promotes three standards specifically related to career and includes student competencies such as developing career awareness, identifying career goals, and gaining understanding of information and how to apply this to reach career goals. The authors of the model also suggest that its structure benefits all students by helping to promote a challenging course of study and increases access to educational opportunities for everyone (ASCA, 2003). Clearly, one of the roles of the school counselor is to be involved with the career development of all students in their schools.

In spite of this, some populations remain underserved in this regard, either because of oversight or a lack of knowledge. One of these groups is prospective first-generation college students. According to information gathered from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (Horn & Nunez, 2000), approximately 27% of high school graduates in 1992 were first-generation students, or students whose parents did not attend college. Of these students, half were from low-income families and, compared to students with college-graduate parents, were more likely to be Hispanic or African-American. This growing population of students has unique needs that must be addressed by school counselors so that all students may have the same opportunities for appropriate and challenging higher education. The 1994 U.S. Census Bureau (as cited in Indiana Career and Postsecondary Advancement Center, 2000) found a direct correlation between higher education and higher salaries, with 4-year college graduates earning an average of $17,000 more per year than someone with only a high school diploma. To date, however, almost no one has focused on how to assist prospective first-generation college students before their arrival to college. Only one article could be located (Fallon, 1997) that focused specifically on primary prevention strategies in working with this population while they are in high school. No theoretical model, however, was applied, and little attention was given to assistance in overcoming barriers to attending college.

The purpose of this article is to examine how school counselors can assist prospective first-generation college students prior to college entrance. This article focuses on how the needs of these students may be met through the application of Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994). The use of the term college refers to any formal education beyond high school leading to a degree.

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