Academics & Faculty

Parental Encouragement, Career and Financial Growth Motivate First-Generation Students to Attend College, UCLA Survey Reveals


More first-generation college students cite parentalencouragement as a key reason for attending college than their peers withcollege-educated parents, according to a new survey of freshman trends releasedby the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA.

The report, "First in My Family: A Profile ofFirst-Generation College Students at Four-Year Institutions Since 1971,"explores trends data collected between 1971 and 2005 on first-generation andnon-first-generation college students as part of Cooperative InstitutionalResearch Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey.

The report, authored by CIRP staff, is issued in conjunctionwith the 40th anniversary of the Freshman Survey, which is administered by theHigher Education Research Institute at UCLA's Graduate School of Education& Information Studies. The report was co-sponsored by the Foundation forIndependent Higher Education.

"The notion that the parents of first-generation collegestudents are a liability to college access is largely debunked, as thesestudents are now more likely than their peers to report that a very importantreason why they went to college was due to parental encouragement," said VictorSaenz, visiting assistant professor at UCLA and lead author of the report.

In 2005, 47 percent of first-generation students (comparedwith 43 percent of non-first-generation students) reported parentalencouragement as a very important reason for attending college.

"This trend has more than doubled for first-generationcollege students since 1971," Saenz said.

Other reasons reported as very important by first-generationstudents include: to get a better job (70.6 percent in 1976 and 77.3 percent in2005); to make more money (53.2 percent in 1976 and 76.4 percent in 2005); andto prepare for graduate school (42.1 percent in 1976 and 58 percent in2005).

"These trends mirror those of non-first-generation peers,"Saenz said. "One key exception lies in the importance of 'making more money' asa reason for going to college, as first-generation college students report thatthis remains a slightly more important priority relative to their peers (76.4percent vs. 69.8 percent)."

U.S. education levelsincrease

Since 1971, the proportion of first-generation studentswithin the overall population of first-time, full-time entering collegefreshman at four-year institutions has steadily declined, reflecting increasinglevels of education among the U.S. population. In 1971, first-generationstudents represented 38.5 percent of all first-time, full-time collegefreshman. By 2005, the proportion of first-generation college students declinedto 15.9 percent, its lowest mark since first measured by the CIRP FreshmanSurvey. Saenz suggests that any conclusions drawn from this decline shouldconsider other enrollment trends for first-generation college students, such astheir increasing enrollment within community colleges as an alternative tofour-year institutions.

Racial and ethnic differences

Although the national average of first-generation studentsamong entering freshmen was 38.5 percent in 1971, when disaggregated byracial/ethnic groups, the proportion was much higher for Hispanics (69.6percent), African Americans (62.9 percent), Native Americans (44.8 percent) andAsians/Asian Americans (42.5 percent). Over the last 35 years, while theproportion of first-generation students within each of these racial/ethnicgroups has steadily declined, it has remained highest for Hispanicfirst-generation students.

Over time, Hispanic students have remained more likely thantheir peers to be first-generation college students, with more than one-third(38.2 percent) included in this category in 2005. Non-Hispanic white studentshave remained consistently less likely to be first-generation students (37.3percent in 1971 and 13.2 percent in 2005), while Asian/Asian American andNative American first-generation students have declined by half since 1971 (19percent and 16.8 percent in 2005, respectively).

Since 1971, African Americans show the greatest decline in theirrepresentation of first-generation college students, dropping by almosttwo-thirds from 1971 (62.9 percent) to 2005 (22.6 percent). Even though AfricanAmerican students have shown the greatest proportional decrease infirst-generation students in the last three decades, this is still a cause forconcern, because the rate of this decline is faster than the decliningproportion of African American adults without a college education in 2005 (55.7percent).

"It is very probable that first-generation African Americanstudents are having more difficulty gaining access to four-year institutions,"said Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher EducationResearch Institute and a co-author of the report.

First-generationstudents work more in high school, expect to get jobsto pay for college

More first-generation college students report working 20hours per week or more during their last year of high school, and more of themexpect to work to pay for college expenses than do their non-first-generationpeers. In 1987, 26 percent of first-generation students reported working morethan 20 hours per week in their last year of high school, compared with 18.9percent of non-first-generation students. In 2005, 22.2 percent offirst-generation students reported working more than 20 hours, compared with 15percent of their peers.

The gap between first-generation students expecting to get ajob to pay for college expenses and their peers continues to increase. From1987 to 2005, there was an increase of 13.6 percentage points in the proportionof first-generation college students reporting a very good chance that theywould get a job to pay for college, increasing from two out of every fivestudents (41.5 percent) to well over half (55.1 percent). In comparison,between 1987 and 2005, there was an increase of 8.3 percentage points amongnon-first-generation college students reporting a high expectation to get a jobto help pay for expenses (36.7 percent to 45 percent).

"Over the last 20 years, there is an apparent consistentrelationship between reported work experiences during high school andexpectations to work in college," said Saenz. "The sharp rise in tuition andfees from the mid 1980s to 2005 may be affecting these increased expectationsfor work during college."

This important new trends report is based on 35 years worthof data collected through the Freshman Survey, administered annually athundreds of four-year institutions around the country. In a typical year, morethan 400,000 entering college freshmen participate in this survey, and nationalnorms are then created to reflect all entering first-time, full-time studentsat the nation's four-year colleges and universities. As an example, for 2005, thesedata were statistically adjusted to reflect the responses of the 1.3 million first-time, full-time students entering four-year collegesand universities as freshmen.

TheFoundation for Independent Higher Education's (FIHE) signature initiative —First Opportunity Partners — is a national effort to help increase the accessand success of first-generation and other underrepresented student populationsin the private college and university sector. Accordingly, FIHE'sinterest in the report's findings helps to strengthen its work.

"Enrollment in college by first-generationstudents represents the fulfillment of the American dream for many families,"said William E. Hamm, FIHE president. "The dream is not fully realized unlessthese students achieve their goals, and private colleges are particularlyeffective in retaining and graduating first-generation students. This importantnew study will be of vital interest to our private college leaders."

FIHE is a national partner in a network of member state andregional fundraising associations. FIHE secures financial resources in supportof America's independent colleges and universities and their students; developscollaborative programs within its network and with other organizations; and,together with its members, is a primary voice of independent higher educationto corporate and philanthropic communities.

For a summary of the study and for ordering information, visitthe Higher Education Research Institute's Web site at



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