To better serve first-generation students, expand the definition

What makes a first-generation college student? Well, that depends on who’s doing the defining.

Yes, there’s the federal definition: a student is first-generation if neither parent has a bachelor’s degree.  

Sounds simple enough. But it doesn’t account for those who had a highly educated parent who wasn’t involved in their lives, or those whose parent got a college degree in another country, with an academic system unlike ours, or those who have one degree-holding parent, but are being raised in a single-parent household.

Researchers argue that many students like these are still meaningfully less advantaged compared to students who have two parents with degrees. Despite the narrow federal definition, many believe these are students who need to be identified and given added resources and support both to get through the college application process and to thrive once they get on campus.

New research from Common App shows that expanding the definition of first-generation expands enrollment data, and thus can tell a different story about who is ready for college.

According to 2022 data from Common App, about 450,000 applicants that year met the federal definition, meaning that neither parent had a bachelor’s degree, including about 300,000 students whose parents had never attended any college. But if the definition is expanded to include applicants who had one parent with a bachelor’s degree, the population increases to more than 700,000. And, according to the report, changing that definition changes other things, too, such as college readiness, socioeconomic status and the number of colleges students apply to.

Brian Heseung Kim, director of data science, research and analytics at Common App, said there isn’t one right way to define first-generation students; the question should be, “What kind of disadvantage are we trying to measure?”

After the Supreme Court ruled against the consideration of race in college admissions last summer, Kim said he was interested in looking at many different aspects of diversity in college applicants, including first-generation status. He said this analysis might help colleges that want to understand the diversity of their applicants; how certain home contexts and hardships might affect how competitive students appear in the application process; and how to support students from all different backgrounds.

“It would be great if everyone could kind of align on one definition for first-generation, it’d be so wonderful if we had that clarity,” Kim said.  “But the reality is that different contexts kind of require different identification methods.”

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The Common App’s analysis shows that, depending on the definition, the percentage of students identified as being part of an underrepresented minority group can range from 45 percent (for those who have one parent who earned a bachelor’s degree) to 58 percent (for students whose parents did not attend any college). And the percentage of those students from low-income families varies from 48 percent (for students who have one parent who earned a bachelor’s degree) to 66 percent (for students whose parents did not attend any college).

Sarah E. Whitley, vice president of the Center for First-generation Student Success, said most colleges define first-generation students as those whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees or those whose parents did not earn bachelor’s degrees in the United States. She said the center doesn’t use one universal definition, and instead works with colleges to identify the definition that makes the most sense for them.

Whitley said the purpose of identifying students as first-generation is to understand whether they have people in their family who can support them with college-going knowledge, but that’s often harder to determine than asking simply “Are you the first in your family to attend college?”

Whitley discourages college from using this language because students may not categorize themselves as first-generation if they had an aunt or uncle or older sibling who attended college. She said it’s better to ask specific questions about parental education, as Common App does, but it can still be difficult to capture everyone. For example, asking about the education of biological parents might not capture students who had a highly educated birth parent but were raised by a stepparent, she said, or students who were raised in a family with two moms or two dads.

The Common App research found that there could be more than 100 definitions, considering the different combinations of parents and caregivers, whether they attended college or graduated, what degree they and many more factors. The analysis considered eight definitions:

  • Neither parent earned a bachelor’s degree (the federal definition)
  • No bachelor’s degrees among living parents (to focus on those who can provide support to the student)
  • No bachelor’s degrees among caregivers (considers others in the household beyond biological parents, such as a stepparent)
  • No domestic bachelor’s degree among caregivers (because degrees from other countries may be less relevant in helping students in the U.S. higher education system)
  • No bachelor’s degrees earned by caregivers before the student was born (excludes those who earned degrees more recently and may not yet have “accrued some of the more socioeconomic benefits of a college degree,” according to the report)
  • No associate degrees, either parent
  • No college attendance, either parent
  • One parent earned a bachelor’s degree

Yolanda Watson-Spiva, president of the advocacy group Complete College America, said it’s also important to think about the social capital that students have if both their parents went to college, such as access to college alumni and professional networks. She said there are big differences in resources between students who have one parent who earned a bachelor’s degree and students whose parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all went to college.

It makes more sense to think of first-generation status as a spectrum, she said, rather than a yes or no question.  Using only the federal definition of first-generation is too narrow and constrictive, she said.

Watson-Spiva’s mother earned a bachelor’s degree and her father went to community college, but one of her grandmothers only had an eighth grade education. She doesn’t identify as a first- generation student, but said she could imagine how someone in a similar situation might, even though they don’t meet the federal definition.

“Many of those folks still struggle,” she said. “There are still big variations between that person and a person who’s had like four generations of family members that are legacies, that went to college.”

This story about first-generation students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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