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Ask Dr. Lynch: Supporting First-Generation College Students

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is a department chair and an associate professor of education at Langston University. He has researched topics related to educational policy, school leadership and education reform, particularly in the urban learning environment, and he is interested in developing collaborative enterprises that move the field of education forward. Visit his Web site for more information. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

This week, reader Tahiry F. asks: 

I am a high-school teacher in Philadelphia, PA. Many of my students go on to college, and I am very proud of them. However, since many of them are first-generation college students, they face unique challenges. As a professor and college administrator, what obstacles do you see first-generation students facing? What are colleges and universities doing to support first-generation students?


Thanks for the question, Tahiry. College attendance has become less of a privilege and more of a necessity in the contemporary workforce. This cultural shift is a reflection of President Obama’s goal for the U.S. to have the largest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020. With this push has come an influx of students that may not have been part of the college scene as early as a decade ago. Availability of courses online and expansion of options at the community college level have paved the way for non-traditional students to earn degrees and a better living. A growing demographic in college attendance and graduation is first-generation students.

More “Firsts” Than Ever

A 2010 study by the Department of Education found that 50 percent of the college population is made up of first-generation students, or those whose parents did not receive education beyond a high school diploma. The National Center for Education Statistics released numbers in 2010 that broke down the educational levels of parents of current college attendees. Minority students made up the largest demographic group whose parents had a high school education or less, with 48.5 percent of Latino and Hispanic students and 45 percent of Black or African-American students included. The parents of students of Asian descent came in at 32 percent with a high school diploma or less and Native Americans at 35 percent. Of students who identified themselves as Caucasian, only 28 percent were first-generation college students. 

Though higher in minority groups, these numbers show the overarching trend of first-generation college attendance in all American demographics. While an education is viewed as an advantage in the job marketplace, the degree alone does not automatically lead to better opportunities and pay. In order to ensure optimal career success within the growing group of first-generation college students, the specific needs of these young people must be addressed—beyond what lies in textbooks.

Challenges Facing First-Generation Students

The simple assumption is that a higher number of educated first-generation college students will translate to better jobs for these graduates and a better quality of life. The answer to the equation is just not that simple, however. First-generation students often come from low-income, minority or immigrant families and lack the life skills and personal capital prevalent among middle- to high-income students.

Parents of first-generation students also may not have the life experience to adequately guide their children to success in the college-educated workforce. A 2004 report in the Journal of Higher Education put it this way: “First-generation students…may be less prepared than similar students whose parents are highly educated, to make the kind of informed choices…that potentially maximize educational progression and benefits.”

The transition from a college setting to a full-time career is often bumpy for all college students, especially first-generation graduates. The things learned in a classroom simply cannot adequately translate to the real world. In addition to “book smarts,” colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare attendees, particularly first-generation ones, for the challenges of the modern workforce.

What Can Be Done

Federally funded initiatives—such as the TRIO and Robert McNair programs— offer academic and tutoring services to support first-generation college students. The problem with these types of programs is that they are vastly underutilized and not required for college graduation. A better approach would be proactive, mandated student mentorship and advising from professors or other staff members who can provide real-world guidance. These programs would focus on the transmission of knowledge from people who “know the ropes” of marketplace settings.

Colleges and universities should also place continued focus on developing skills and employability among students. Schools with especially high numbers of first-generation students, like California State University Dominquez Hills, have implemented “workforce 101” courses to strengthen the social and intellectual skills of future graduates. It is not enough to assume that students know how to apply classroom skills to a real-world environment. Researching the needs of first-generation college students should be a priority for all institutions of higher education, as it will help them build a better-prepared workforce.


About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

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