A periodic newsletter on a single topic of interest published by the Office of Higher Education
First-generation college students more likely to be older, independent, and attending part time
Students who are the first in their family to attend college come from a variety of backgrounds. Yet these students face some common challenges as they strive to complete degrees, often with less support and guidance from their families.
In an effort to better understand these students in Minnesota, this issue of Insight provides information about the characteristics of first-generation students. The first-generation student information in this issue is based on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS) from 2004 administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
First-generation undergraduates are students whose parents have never been enrolled in college, meaning their highest educational attainment was a high school degree or the equivalent. While the definition of a first-generation student is based upon neither parent having any college experience, the estimates in this analysis are based on three levels of parental education attainment: no college, some college, and bachelor's degree or higher.
In 2004, 26 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in college in Minnesota were first-generation students. Nationally, 34 percent of all undergraduates the first in their family to attend college.
Distribution of undergraduates in Minnesota by parents' highest level of educational attainment, 2004
First-generation students comprised a larger percentage (36 percent) of the students in the public two-year institutions than students whose parents attained a bachelor's degree or higher (27 percent).
First-generation students were also less likely to enroll in the private four-year sector than students whose parents had bachelor's degree or higher. Only 17 percent of students enrolled in private not-for-profit four-year institutions were first-generation students compared to 62 percent of students whose parents had attained a bachelor's degree or higher.
Distribution of undergraduates in Minnesota's institution types by parents' educational attainment, 2004
A student's attendance pattern (the number of credits taken and the number of months enrolled during an academic year) plays a large role in their persistence through the degree program and the chances of successfully completing their program. In Minnesota, 60 percent of first-generation students (defined as students whose parents attended no college) attended on a full-time basis compared to 75 percent of students whose parents attained a bachelor's degree or higher. Since fewer first-generation students attend full-time, it takes them longer to complete their degrees.
Full- or part-time enrollment status by parents' highest educational attainment, 2004
First-generation students tend to be older and are more likely to be self-supporting. They are often financially independent of their parents and often delay enrollment in post-secondary education to work. In Minnesota, 46 percent of first-generation students reported delaying enrollment in college after high school compared to only 27 percent of students whose parents had some college and 18 percent of students whose parents attained a bachelor's degree or higher.
Another difference between first-generation students and students whose parents have completed a bachelor's degree is their dependency status. Undergraduate students are traditionally dependent students, meaning they are younger than 24 years of age and are considered financially dependent on their parents. Independent students are generally 24 years or older, or they are students with dependent children. Overall, a high percentage of first-generation students were independent (63 percent). Of those students whose parents had a bachelor's degree or higher, only 27 percent were independent students.
As the students grow older, their chances of being married and having children are also higher. A large share of first generation students are married (35 percent) compared to only 21 percent of students whose parents had some college and 11 percent of students whose parents attained bachelor's degrees or higher.
Thirty-seven percent of first-generation students had children compared to 23 percent of students whose parents had some college and 10 percent of students whose parents attained a bachelor's degree or higher. In Minnesota, 11 percent of all first-generation undergraduates were single parents compared to 4 percent of students whose parents attained a bachelor's degree or higher.
Percent who were married or had children in Minnesota, 2004
While Minnesota's immigrant population is fairly small, especially compared to the national average or to other states, this population is growing. Thus, it is not surprising that more immigrant and second-generation American students appear in the undergraduate population in Minnesota post-secondary institutions. These students are making the most of an opportunity that often did not exist for their parents. In addition to the challenges of being the first generation to attend college, these students must also deal with the obstacles of being an immigrant or the children of immigrants. First-generation students were more likely to have either one or both parents born outside the U.S. (16 percent) than students whose parents had some college (7 percent) or bachelor's degrees or higher (9 percent). First-generation students were more likely to come from households where English is not the primary language (11 percent) than students whose parents had at least some college.
Percent who report that the primary language spoken at home is not English and percent with either one or both parents born outside the U.S., 2004
Since first-generation students are often attending college with little support or guidance from their families, they may be less prepared for college. One measure of their relative preparedness is their reliance on remedial courses taken during their undergraduate degree program. In Minnesota, 37 percent of first-generation students reported taking remedial courses compared to 25 percent of students whose parents have bachelor's degree or higher (Figure 5). Nationally, 39 percent of first-generation students took remedial classes compared to 29 percent of students whose parents have bachelor's degrees. These differences indicate that first-generation students are facing more challenges in their undergraduate coursework than their peers.
While state-level data indicates the current situation for first-generation students in Minnesota, the long-term implications can be understood through a national study that analyzed longitudinal data on undergraduate students1:
The findings from this report indicate that compared with students whose parents attended college, first-generation students consistently remained at a disadvantage after entering postsecondary education: they completed fewer credits, took fewer academic courses, earned lower grades, needed more remedial assistance, and were more likely to withdraw from or repeat courses they attempted. As a result, the likelihood of attaining a bachelor's degree was lower for first-generation students compared to their peers whose parents attended college. This finding also held after taking into account variables related to degree completion including postsecondary credit production, performance, high school academic preparation, and student background characteristics. Even for students who attended a 4-year institution with the intention of earning a bachelor's degree, first-generation students were less likely to earn a bachelor's degree than were their counterparts whose parents held a bachelor's or higher degree.2
For more information about first-generation students and other characteristics of the undergraduate population in Minnesota, please refer to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education report, Minnesota Undergraduate Demographics: Characteristics of Postsecondary Students or visit the links to the right.
The estimates presented in this article are based on data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS). The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education administered NPSAS. The survey aims to understand how students and their families finance education and to assess certain characteristics of students enrolled in postsecondary education. NPSAS does not contain representative data for the for-profit institutions at the state level. The state samples are representative only for students attending public two-year, public four-year and private not-for-profit institutions. Thus, the estimates in this report pertain to these three institution types.
In addition to the estimates, several graphs contain error bars. These error bars represent the 95 percent confidence interval of these estimates (which are approximately two standard errors below and above the average). The bars are used to indicate the magnitude of the standard error for estimates.
All estimates of amounts are rounded to three significant figures. All estimates of percents are rounded to the nearest whole number.
About the Office of Higher Education
The Office of Higher Education is a state agency providing students with financial aid programs and information to help them gain access to post-secondary education. The agency serves as the state's clearinghouse for data, research and analysis on post-secondary enrollment, financial aid, finance and trends.
The Minnesota State Grant program, which is administered by the agency, is a need-based tuition assistance program for Minnesota students. The agency also oversees tuition reciprocity programs, a student loan program, Minnesota's 529 college savings program, licensing and an early awareness outreach initiative for youth. Through collaboration with systems and institutions, the agency assists in the development of the state's education technology infrastructure and shared library resources.
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