Success for first generation college students

Success for first generation college students

According to the College Board, one out of every three 5-17 years in the United States is a first generation student.  A first generation student is an individual from a family in which neither parent has gone to college or completed a four-year degree.  First generation students are usually from low income families and are disproportionately African American or Hispanic, with a significant number from white rural families. These first generation pioneers will soon be the majority of U.S. college students.  Their retention rates, however, are notoriously low.   Only 43 percent of those who matriculate to private colleges and universities will graduate within four years.  And the retention rates are even lower among students in public institutions and community colleges.  According to a 2011 UCLA study, only 27 percent of first generation students will graduate in four years.

michelle obama is a first gen

First Lady Michelle Obama is a first generation college graduate who also has a law degree

This lack of academic success among first generation students poses serious social and economic consequences for our country. First generation students arrive at college with characteristics that often compromise their academic and social experiences.  They usually have had lower levels of academic preparation than their peers.  For example, they have taken fewer AP and advanced mathematics courses in high school than the typical college student.  Moreover, first generation students set lower expectations for themselves as early as 8th grade, often excluding consideration of high status professions that demand post-graduate education, such as law or medicine.

First generation students struggle to achieve the academic and social integration crucial for college completion and pathways to careers.  Studies show they are less likely to be engaged in extra-curricular activities, form friendships with other students, or seek support from professors. Such behaviors are correlated with cultural identity and adaptation.  The pursuit of higher education often casts first generation students in the precarious position of feeling they must break away from the the cultural norms of their youth in order to adapt to the often alien culture of the college campus. Navigating between two very separate worlds often contributes to stress, confusion, isolation and alienation.  “People like me don’t go to college,” “I feel out of place,” report first generation students who no longer fit into to their “home” environment and do not feel accepted in their new college culture.

Colleges and universities have made concerted efforts to improve retention rates of first generation college students.  Most programs concentrate on “fixing” academic deficiencies through remedial coursework, particularly in science and math, to address student weaknesses.  And interventions during freshman year are crucial to subsequent academic success or failure.  Most empirical research on first generation college students concentrates on student weaknesses: poor academic preparation, difficulties in making the transition from high school to college, and failure to adapt to college cultural norms. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with first generation college students, why not focus on what is right?

An emerging literature suggests that targeting student strengths, not weaknesses, may have a positive effect on first generation student retention rates.  Researchers have studied the strength-based variable of hope and its correlation with student success in college.  “Hope Theory,” based on the work of positive psychologist C.R. Snyder, defines hope as thoughts not emotions.  Hope is the “process of thinking about one’s goals, along with the motivation to move toward these goals (agency) and the ways to achieve those goals (pathways).”

Using Snyder’s Hope Scale, researchers have found a positive correlation (not causation) between high levels of hope and improved semester GPAs among college students. In a longitudinal study of more than 3,000 college students, researchers constructed a profile of students with high levels of hope.  Characteristics included motivation, confidence, a sense of self-worth, and an ability to access coping skills when experiencing the stressors of college life (Snyder, Rand and Sigmon, 2002).   High hope students tend to have less depression and could marshall hope when confronted with the unique obstacles that face first generation college students.  Students with less hope, on the other hand, tend to give up, often dropping out, because they could not construct and process ways to triumph over challenges and barriers (Williams and Butler, 2010).


“High hope” students report less depression in college

College programs that provide access to positive pathways toward success for first generation students may be more successful than programs that focus only on academic remediation. Studies suggest that trained counselors and mentors, who guide first generation students as they set tangible goals and realize them by tracking academic progress, are more effective than traditional faculty advisors.  First generation students, often overwhelmed with academic requirements, benefit with tools to help them break down major assignments into small, realizable steps or demystify tests into challenges that can be overcome by targeted academic support accompanied by test taking and time management skills.  Concrete tools reinforce the already-existing motivation of first generation students (extreme motivation is a major reason these students matriculated to college in the first place) and turn dreams and expectations into real-world pathways to success not only in college, but also throughout life.

The work of positive psychologist Caroline Adams Miller reinforces research findings.  Miller says that hope is often the most important ingredient she cultivates as she guides clients in setting and fulfilling goals. “Hope,” she explains, “does something very important to people at transitional stages of life, for example college, a new job, or a new time in life.  Hope creates ‘pathways’ thinking, which means that not only do people begin to generate more solutions to their problems, they believe that they have what it takes to actually carry out those solutions.”

Miller notes that hope is one of the top five strengths seen among flourishing people.  “When you have hope, you always have optimism and future-mindedness, which allows you to envision a better future for yourself, but also the energy and enthusiasm to tackle the short-term goals that can get you where you want to go.”

Academic mentoring alone is not sufficient

Academic mentoring alone is not sufficient

In addition to trained counselors or mentors, peer group support is a crucial component in first generation student success.  It is true that first generation students tend to socialize less and make fewer social connections than other college students.  But first generation students do not need lots of friends, researchers note, they just need friends who will provide them with resources to help them cope with pressures of college life (Dennis, Phinney and Chuateco, 2005).  They also need peer support from students who have come from similar backgrounds, a “home base” where students can connect and share experiences on navigating an often strange and bewildering college culture. These peer support groups should be formal communities with incentive structures to ensure regular attendance by both first generation freshmen and their sophomore, junior and senior peers. Social media can ensure ongoing communication between such face-to-face community gatherings.

Trained counselors and mentors, as well as consistent interaction with a peer college community, are essential parts of a “hope inspired” retention program that creates and sustains an institutional structure and a common culture to foster success.  The programmatic foundation is built upon the answers of first generation students themselves when asked about particular challenges they face or anticipate during their course of college study. Courses offered the summer before matriculation and/or the first semester should not only focus on academics but on nurturing hope by goal setting and teaching pathway skills that students will use both in college and throughout life.

Increasing graduation rates and career success among first generation college students benefit not only the students themselves, but also social mobility and diversity in the U.S. economy.  Complementing student dreams with concrete pathways to graduation and career by emphasizing strengths, not just weaknesses, should be at the core of innovative college retention programs.



Anderson, N. (2004). “A good student, trapped”: Urban minority males and constructions of academic achievement. Perspectives in Education, 22(4), 71-82.

Clifton, D. O., & Anderson, E. C. (2002). StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond. Washington, DC: The Gallup Organization.

Folger, W. A., Carter, J. A., & Chase, P. B. (2004). Supporting first generation college freshmen with small group intervention. College Student Journal, 38(3), 472-476.

Gibbons, M. M., & Shoffner, M. F. (2004). Prospective first-generation college students: Meeting their needs through social cognitive career theory. Professional School Counseling, 8(1), 91-97.

Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., & Pedrotti, J. T. (2003). Hope: Many definitions, many measures. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Positive psychological  assessment: A handbook of models and measures. (pp. 91-106) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J., Shorey, H. S., Rand, K. L., & Feldman, D. B. (2003). Hope theory, measurements, and applications to school psychology. School Psychology Quarterly, 18(2), 122-139.

Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon, D. R. (2002). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology. (pp. 257-276) New York: Oxford University Press.

Snyder, C. R., Shorey, H. S., Cheavens, J., Pulvers, K. M., Adams, V. H., III, & Wiklund, C. (2002). Hope and academic success in college. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(4), 820-826.

Torres, V. (2006). A mixed method study testing data-model fit of a retention model for Latino/students at urban universities. Journal of College Student Development, 47(3), 299-318.

Williams, C. R., & Butler, S. K. (2010). A new retention variable: Hope and first generation college students. Retrieved from vistas10/Article_11.pdf


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



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