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First Generation Students: The Dropout Disaster

By Ryan McGrath | Considering Another Side Essays

Fairly recently, universities have begun working to address the considerable risk of first generation student dropout.  This dropout problem threatens to keep potential scholars from being able to bring valuable new knowledge to the world by forcing them out of college before they can finish their education. First generation students appear to drop out after failing to overcome a disproportionally large amount of problems with adjusting to, and succeeding in, college. The attentive administrations of these universities have begun creating programs to address this obvious threat to their continuing student populations. The problem with these programs is that the causes of first generation student problems are not agreed upon. A program is always destined to fail when it cannot directly adjust or respond to the causes behind problems. For example, a program to combat theft in a poor neighborhood would fail unless it addressed the poverty, an underlying cause of crime because people steal to survive if they are too poor to survive any other way. The major conflict about first generation programs is whether it is social adjustment problems or a combination of problems like an excess of family commitments or financial problems, which make it difficult for first generation students to succeed in college. While there is no question that social adjustment is an issue for first generation students, the true causes for most of their social and academic problems are the existing traits that make it more difficult for the student to concentrate on doing well in school. In order to solve this “distracted by life” problem, the pre-existing traits that hinder first generation students must be targeted and dealt with so that less bright minds are lost in high college drop-out rates.

The single greatest problem facing first generation, and the institutions that they attend, is the sheer number of first generation students who are forced to leave college. This problem is so severe that Dr. Valerie McKay, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, found in a study that about 43% of first generation students leave without finishing a degree, whereas only about 20% of non-first generation students left without a degree (McKay and Estrella 357). Incredibly, first generation students were over two times more likely to have to leave college without finishing a degree. It almost appears that first generation students are discriminated against because they are forced to deal with many more problems, such as a lack of financial ability to pay for college, than regular students during their college careers. Although there will always be some people who cannot avoid dropping out, the number of first generation student dropouts should not be so much higher than other students. But when do the problems that lead to first generation student dropout occur? Kathleen Cushman, a scholar who has done substantial research on the experiences of first generation college students, found a potential answer to this question in her studies about the experiences of first generation students in the United States. Cushman’s study turned up statistics that revealed the fact that about a quarter of first generation students who enter four year colleges do not return the next year (44). Obviously the fact that such a large portion of first generation students fail to continue their college education after only the first year suggests that the problems these students face immediately start affecting the students when they start college. It is likely then, that the reasons for later dropouts could be the accumulation of problems stemming from the lack of confidence, lack of preparation for college life, and lack of money that usually separates first generation students from their peers.

Universities, realizing the importance of aiding their first generation students, have begun implementing and testing special programs intended to provide the necessary help required by first generation students. Of course it is impossible to create a program until the causes behind first generation students’ problems with college are determined. One commonly believed cause for these problems is that first generation students face many social adjustment problems. Proponents of this theory believe that the difficulty adjusting to college life and the resulting social situation, possibly stemming from their parents’ inability to prepare them for college life, distracts the first generation students from coursework and eventually causes them to drop out if they are unable to deal with the change. However Theron Snell, a university academic advisor and instructor has found that in reality this social problems theory fails to completely address the difficulties of first generation students because they are not the only students who face social transition problems. Snell believes that the real problem lies with the combination of financial difficulties, excessive work focus, and the resulting lesser importance of schoolwork in the minds of first generation students (28). Since their parents did not earn a college degree, and as the lack of a college degree attainment vastly decreases potential earnings, it is very common for first generation students to be left with little money saved or available from their parents to pay for their continuing education. This lack of funding means that the student needs to work hard to ensure that he or she can afford to continue to go to college. Snell found support for the idea that many first generation students are forced to devalue their schoolwork as they need to choose more work hours over more homework hours in order to help pay for their education (28). Unfortunately the implication of spending so much effort in working tends to make first generation students do poorly on schoolwork and thus eventually drop out when they cannot see themselves able to achieve a degree and pay for it at the same time.

This complex problem is also clearly shown in a study run by Khanh Van T. Bui at Pepperdine University. Van T. Bui found that first generation students were excessively preoccupied with financial problems, feared academic failure, and felt less prepared for college than other students (3). All of these worries play a big part in why it is that so many first generation students are forced to drop out. In addition, these worries directly distract first generation students from their goals of degree completion and academic success. Eventually all but the most devoted first generation students are forced to give up college in order to allow them the time to work for a living and make sure their family is taken care of.  Of course the first generation students’ problems are not solely the results of worries and financial problems. Additional factors also seem to play a part in whether first generation students persist to graduation. A study by Terry Ishitani found that pre-college characteristics like high school class rank can be strong predictors of whether first generation student will eventually graduate (880). The biggest concern about this study is the fact that it indicated there could be causes for first generation students’ problems arising as early as high school. High school class rank data, while seemingly a statistic whereby academic achievement could be measured, really shows the underlying problem that first generation students are forced to spend less effort on their academic pursuits. First generation students need to spend time helping their parents by taking care of siblings or helping around the house more, and thus spend less time on school assignments. This pattern may continue into college, where first generation students not only have to continue their previous level of aid for their families, but they also need to find a way to pay for their college educations as well.

With the knowledge of powerful underlying causes for first generation students’ problems, the current programs need to be adjusted so that they directly target and reduce the effects of the fundamental problems that cause first generation students to drop out in much higher numbers than non-first generation students. One example of a program that has successfully helped first generation students is the Freshman Empowerment Program at the University of Central Michigan. The FEP is based on multiple small-group discussion meetings with the goal of helping the first generation students with their difficult transition into college life (Folger et al. 472). The small groups in this program met once a week to allow the first generation students a chance to voice their many concerns about college, including financial problems and academic struggles, and receive help from the program mentors and other students. The students in this program were able to receive important advice from their peers and mentors, allowing them to better deal with their problems. A summary of the results from this study show the dramatic effects caused by the FEP; students in the FEP had a retention rate that was about 40% higher than that of the control group and they had higher GPAs. This example shows how effective a specialized program can be in aiding first generation students if it is implemented so that it allows the students to address their problems.

Universities have a responsibility to ensure that the bright minds of each generation are able to access knowledge and to prepare them to become the next leaders in the academic world and in society. Universities always benefit when more of their students attain degrees because not only does it help show that a university is a good institution to fund, but it means that there is a larger number of alumni that could help support and advance the university. Gary Pike and George Kuh showed exactly why they believe universities need to help first generation students in their Journal of Higher Education article:

An institution of higher education cannot change the lineage of its students. But it can implement interventions that increase the odds that first-generation college students “get ready,” “get in,” and “get through” by changing the way those students view college and by altering what they do after they arrive. (292)

Given the fact that there have been successful first generation student programs that reduced dropout and increased GPAs at some universities, shouldn’t those universities that have not started to address the problems of their first generation students follow suit and start drastically increasing both their retention rates and degree attainment numbers?

First generation students have always been plagued by problems with staying in college and earning degrees. These problems have recently been found to be caused by the financial problems and familial issues that are so severe for first generation students. It is imperative that universities create and fund programs to help first generation students address these underlying problems because the universities have the responsibility to help their students successfully complete their degrees. If universities do not reduce the number of first generation student dropouts, society will lose out on the potentially important discoveries and impacts that those first generation students might have contributed, had they been allowed the chance to finish their college educations. Another concern is that social, and economic, class differences may be increased if the mostly lower class first generation students are not able to finish a college education. Perhaps if there was more research and time devoted to studying and compensating for the effects of first generation related traits, such as financial insecurity and poor college preparation, universities would be able to greatly reduce their numbers of lost first generation students.

Works Cited

Cushman, Kathleen. "Facing the Culture Shock of College." Educational Leadership 64.7; 7 (2007): 44-7.

Folger, Wendy A., Joyce A. Carter, and Patricia B. Chase. "Supporting First Generation College Freshmen Withsmall Group Intervention." College Student Journal 38.3 (2004): 472-5.

Ishitani, Terry T. "Studying Attrition and Degree Completion Behavior among First-Generation College Students in the United States." Journal of Higher Education 77.5; 5 (2006): 861-85.

McKay, Valerie C., and Jeremy Estrella. "First-Generation Student Success: The Role of Faculty Interaction in Service Learning Courses." Communication Education 57.3 (2008): 356-72.

Pike, Gary R., and George D. Kuh. "First- and Second-Generation College Students: A Comparison of their Engagement and Intellectual Development." Journal of Higher Education 76.3; 3 (2005): 276-300.

Snell, Theron P. First-Generation Students, Social Class, and Literacy. Vol. 94. American Association of University Professors, 2008.

Van T. Bui, Khanh. "First-Generation College Students at a Four-Year University: Background Characteristics, Reasons for Pursuing Higher Education, and First-Year Experiences." College Student Journal 36.1 (2002): 3.

Works Consulted

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Collier, Peter, and David Morgan. "“Is that Paper really due Today?”: Differences in First-Generation and Traditional College Students’ Understandings of Faculty Expectations." Higher Education 55.4; 4 (2008): 425-46.

Horwedel, Dina M. "Putting First-Generation Students First." Diverse: Issues in Higher Education 25.5 (2008): 10-2.

London, Howard B. "Breaking Away: A Study of First-Generation College Students and their Families." American Journal of Education 97.2 (1989): 144-70.

Maxwell, Judith. "Bridging the Access Gap: It Starts with First - Generation Students." The Globe and Mail (Canada) May 19 2008, sec. REPORT ON BUSINESS: CANADIAN; Agenda: EDUCATION: B2.

Pascarella, Ernest T., et al. "First-Generation College Students: Additional Evidence on College Experiences and Outcomes." The Journal of Higher Education 75.3 (2004): 249-84.

Toews, Michelle L., and Ani Yazedjian. "College Adjustment among Freshmen: Predictors for White and Hispanic Males and Females." College Student Journal 41.4 (2007): 891-900.