First Gen among Gen Z

First Generation College Students (FGCS) means you are enrolled in college and on track to graduate and your parents or guardians and siblings have not completed a 4-year college or university degree but may have attended.  Estimates are that approximately 20 percent of college students in the United States are FGCS. FGCS, on one hand, is a good news story as this group represents economic upward social mobility for a distinct and significant group of Americans. On the other hand, FGCS are more likely to leave the university even controlling for other important background variables such as race, ethnicity, sex, and social class.  

A major predictor of college retention is the ability to pay for a college education and experience. But what happens when college costs are all covered? Are there still differences between FGCS and non-FGCS? Our data below point to some differences among and within our three groups in the directions we might expect. However, the differences are not exceptionally dramatic.   

We compare FGCS with non-FGCS by Military Academy cadets, ROTC cadets, and civilian college students between 2017 and 2022 across a handful of typical and contemporary college life issues.  Our sample yielded an underrepresented 13 percent of military academy cadets as FGCS compared to the national average of 20 percent; a representative 21 percent of ROTC cadets are FGCS; and whopping overrepresentation of 38 percent of civilian college students are FGCS.

On most of the college life issue items in the chart above, our three affiliations coupled with generational college status are uniform. Civilian non-FGSC are the least dissatisfied with their college learning experience at four percent. For all the other items, the percentages are slightly in the direction of FGCS. There are dramatic distinctions among civilians and within military academy cadets for feeling that their level of classes is too difficult—15 percent between FGCS military cadets and 18 percent for civilians.  We added paying for college where the findings are somewhat expected and somewhat not. Military Academy cadets have no college or living expenses, civilians certainly do. More the half of the latter who are FGCS are having problems. ROTC cadets are notable as they are scholarship’d but not to the degree of military academy cadets. Their difference of 22 percent (non)FGCS needs further examination and consideration; perhaps reflecting income inequalities between (non)FGCS families.

How might students, faculty, and staff and their campuses address these inequities? Examples of interventions can include new affinity groups on campus or merging with existing ones such as at Columbia University, faculty celebrating and legitimizing FGCS such as UCLA faculty who made a video about being First Gen, or establishing courses on campus such as the University of Georgia or programs such as those at Chapman University. Other efforts could include special training of faculty and staff to advise in faculty development on behalf of FGCS; student liaisons from affinity groups in classes and academic excellence programs; and of course, continued research on the experiences of FGCS.

Sources Consulted

Collier, Peter J., and David L. Morgan. 2008. “‘Is That Paper Really Due Today?’ Differences in First Generation and Traditional College Students’ Understandings of Faculty Expectations.” Higher Education 55(4): 425–446.

Jack, Anthony A. 2016. “(No) Harm in Asking: Class, Acquired Cultural Capital, and Academic Engagement at an Elite University.” Sociology of Education 89(1): 1–19.

Jack, Anthony A. 2019. The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Laemmli, Taylor, Eric Grodsky, and Lyn C. Macgregor. 2022. “Going Places: First‐Generation College Students Framing Higher Education,” Sociological Forum, 37(4): 972-994.

Pratt, Ian S., Hunter B. Harwood, Jenel T. Cavazos, and Christopher P. Ditzfield. 2019. “Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Retention in First-Generation College Students,” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, and Practice 21(1): 105-118.

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