SAGE Musings: Supporting First Generation College Students

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College

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published Apr 18, 2019 9:42am

In the early years of the 21st century, 45% of the students in public two-year colleges were first-generation college students (Nomi, 2005), and their numbers were increasing (Ishitani, 2003). First-generation students tend to be highly motivated (e.g., Martinez, 2018); they see college as a means to obtaining a job that will provide financial security (Nomi, 2005; Kirk, 2015). However, because families of first-generation students have not experienced college first-hand, they sometimes offer counter-productive advice to students (Davis, 2011). At the same time, college faculty and staff members may incorrectly assume that college students know where, when, and how to find and take advantage of college resources and services (Diamond et al., 2018). In addition, first-generation college students are more likely to be working full-time while attending college (Nomi, 2005; Darling and Smith, 2007), which makes it harder to meet with faculty or staff outside of class. Fortunately, there are many evidence-based practices that faculty can employ to support first-generation students' academic success and persistence (see references). And as with so many research-based practices, these strategies are beneficial to other students as well.

De-mystify college

What we expect from college students differs in significant ways from what was expected of them in high school. To be fair to your students, be completely explicit about your expectations of them with regards to both academic work and behavior. How do you expect students to prepare for class? How much time should they plan for that? In what ways do you expect them to participate during class? For example, what should they do if they disagree with you or with another student? If you expect students to work in groups, where do you draw the line between collaboration and plagiarism? What are your policies regarding food, beverages, cell phones, and laptops in the classroom? The more explicit you can be about your expectations, the less your students have to try to read your mind to succeed. Some colleges, recognizing the need to de-mystify college for many of their students, now offer courses on the "unwritten rules and unspoken expectations" for college (Chatelain, 2018).

Encourage help-seeking behaviors

Students, especially those who were successful in high school, may view asking for help -- or even talking to an instructor outside of class -- as an indication that they are failing and/or do not belong in college. By encouraging help-seeking, you can normalize these behaviors, helping your students to associate them with success rather than failure. Language matters; you can re-frame "seeking help" as "utilizing resources effectively." Think about timing, as well; if you wait until after some students have failed their first exam to encourage them to seek help when they need it, they will get the message that help is for students who are failing. Why not encourage them to make use of your office hours the week BEFORE the first exam, or before their first major assignment is due? This way, you can help shape students' understanding of office hours as an opportunity to confirm their understanding of course content and/or clarify your expectations for their learning.

Some students will find it difficult, or even impossible, to meet with you outside of class. They may have full-time jobs, family obligations, or other constraints on their time. Don't write these students off; a student who is attending college while working and/or taking care of a family is obviously highly motivated! See if you can find other avenues of support for them. Online office hours may work for some (Diamond et al., 2018), and you might be able to hold office hours online at times you wouldn't want to have to be in your campus office. If your college has a tutoring center or other academic support offices, make sure your students know about those.

Develop a supportive environment

There are many strategies you can employ to develop an environment supportive of student success. Perhaps the most common is allowing students to re-do assignments (Diamond et al., 2018) or to "drop" the assignment with the lowest score. This can be especially helpful early in the term, as students are making the adjustment from high school expectations to college expectations. But developing an environment that supports ALL students can also include more subtle strategies. Are the examples you describe in class likely to be familiar to all of your students, or do they assume some cultural background knowledge that not all of your students will have? Are you mindful of some students' limited financial resources -- are there free or inexpensive alternatives to the textbooks or other resources for your courses? To what extent to you take into account your students' external obligations (family, work, etc.)? Two suggestions from Diamond et al. (2018) that I found particularly interesting are to help first-generation college students find each other in the classroom and for any faculty members who were first-generation college students to self-identify, so that their first-generation students can see them as role models.

Build career information into courses

I think that incorporating career information into our courses is a good idea for all students, but it may be particularly beneficial for first-generation students, who often see college as a path to better employment opportunities (Kirk, 2015). For suggestions on how to do this, see my earlier Musing about geoscience career resources on the SAGE 2YC website or explore the collection of Musings related to facilitating students' professional pathways.

Show examples of successful first-generation students

Some colleges are now developing web pages specifically for first-generation students, featuring success stories from earlier first-generation students. There is also a national initiative, called "I'm First!", with a website supporting "an online community celebrating first-generation college students": Their website features video testimonials from first-generation students and graduates from across the country. Many of them are STEM majors. Check out the collection of stories. How could you use some of these in your courses? Do you have students who could contribute their own stories to the collection? I would like to see more examples from 2YC students.


Chatelain, M. (2018). We Must Help First-Generation Students Master Academe's 'Hidden Curriculum'. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 21, 2018. Retrieved from, 16 April 2019.

Darling, R. A., and Smith, M. S. (2007). First-generation college students: First-year challenges. Academic Advising: New Insights for Teaching and Learning in the first year. NACADA Monograph Series, (14), 203-211.

Davis, Jeff (2011). The Internal Psychology of First-Generation College Students - The Importance and Impact of Personal Relationships. Excerpt from The First-Generation Student Experience; Implications for Campus Practice, and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success, published by Tomorrow's Professor (Rick Reis, editor). Retrieved from, 4 March 2019.

Diamond, Miriam Rosalyn, Amy Ballin, and Margaret Costello (2018). Faculty Voices on Promoting First-Generation College Student Academic Success. Published by Tomorrow's Professor (Rick Reis, editor). Retrieved from, 4 March 2019.

Ishitani, T. T. (2003). A longitudinal approach to assessing attrition behavior among first-generation students: Time-varying effects of pre-college characteristics. Research in Higher Education, 44(4), 433-449.

Kirk, Karin (2015). Support First-Generation Students at Two-Year Colleges. Web module within the SAGE 2YC website. Retrieved from, 4 March 2019.

Martinez, Andrew (2018). The Opportunity of Being First-Gen, blog post, Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Retrieved from, 4 March 2019.

Nomi, T. (2005). Faces of the Future: A Portrait of First-Generation Community College Students. American Association of Community Colleges. Retrieved from

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