First-Generation College Students at a Four-Year University: Background Characteristics, Reasons for Pursuing Higher Education, and First-Year Experiences

Article excerpt

This study examined the background characteristics of first-generation college students at a four-year university, their reasons for pursuing higher education, and their first-year experiences. In comparison to students whose parents had some college experience but no degrees (n = 75) and students whose parents had at least a bachelor's degree (n = 68), first-generation college students (n = 64) were more likely to come from a lower socioeconomic background, to report that they were pursuing higher education to help their family out financially after they complete college, and to worry about financial aid for college. It is recommended that campus support services for these students directly address their unique challenges and concerns.

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First-generation college students are those whose parents have not attended college (Billson & Terry, 1982). Most of these students start college at a two-year institution rather than a four-year institution. For example, for the 1995-96 academic year, 50.2% of first-generation college students started higher education at a two-year college (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999). They tend to start at two-year institutions for various reasons, three of which are (a) their academic preparation is not competitive enough to gain admission to a four-year institution, (b) they cannot afford the tuition costs at a four-year institution, or (c) they need the flexibility of class schedules at a two-year institution to meet their other responsibilities as workers, spouses, or parents (see Zwerling & London, 1992).

Research, however, has shown that first-generation students have a better chance of earning a bachelor's degree if they start postsecondary education at a four-year college rather than a two-year college. For example, statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (2000) show that, among first-generation college students who started higher education during the 1989-90 academic year, less than 10% of those who started at a two-year institution had earned a bachelor's degree by 1994; in contrast, a little more than 40% of those who started at a four-year institution had earned their bachelor's degree by 1994.

Surprisingly, little survey research has been done on the background characteristics of first-generation college students at four-year institutions. The few empirical studies that have been conducted on these students have mainly examined topics such as their risk of attrition (Billson & Terry, 1982; Pratt, & Skaggs, 1989), their personality characteristics (McGregor, Mayleben, Buzzanga, Davis, & Becker, 1991), their relationships with their families (London, 1989), their academic preparation and first-year performance (Riehl, 1994), and their cognitive development (Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996; these researchers also included community college students among their participants).

The current study contributed to the literature on first-generation college students by focusing on those who start their higher education at a four-year university. More specifically, this study examined (a) the background characteristics of these students, (b) their reasons for pursuing higher education, and (c) their first-year experiences. Their responses were compared to those of students whose parents had at least a bachelor's degree and to those of students whose parents had some college experience but no degrees. Such analyses can identify challenges that are particular to first-generation college students and inform offices of student support services of the kinds of help that these students need to succeed at a four-year institution.

Method

Participants

First-generation college students (n = 64) were recruited from the Program Leading to Undergraduate Success at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). …