Must Read Blog July 25, 2023

Driving Toward a Degree 2023:  First-Generation Focus

In our recent article, we discussed an enrollment concern in higher education as institutions grapple to sustain their missions with an increasingly smaller pool of traditional-aged students. In this article, we’d like to extend that topic with a focus on first-generation students and suggest areas for institutions and solution providers to better support those students as they enroll, learn, and persist in higher education.

Awareness and Belonging

Students who report higher awareness of student support services also report greater feelings of belonging at their institutions. As belonging is related to persistence and retention, we want to find ways to encourage students to engage with student support services and this begins with making sure students are aware of services available to them at their institutions. 

Driving Toward a Degree 2023: Student belonging and awareness of support services

Driving Toward a Degree 2023 really highlights a need to increase student awareness of available support services on campus.  At best, across the categories of support services tested, 65% of students were aware of academic advising, and at worst, only 29% of students were aware of student success coaches. New student orientation, statements on syllabi, and posts on websites are the most common ways institutional stakeholders report communicating the availability of supports to the study body. These passive forms of communication are not enough to engage students with services that might be valuable. 

Driving Toward a Degree 2023: Awareness of Student Services by First and Continuing Generation

Furthermore, as seen above, first-generation students are generally slightly more aware of services than continuing generation students and yet we see a graduation rate differential of 23 percentage points between the two populations. In this newsletter, we attempt to draw attention to potential root causes of this issue.

Awareness and Utilization 

In our Driving Towards a Degree data, we can compare awareness of support services to actual utilization of support services. For first-generation students, aside from academic advising, this gap is roughly 34 percentage points across the remaining thirteen services tested.

Driving Toward a Degree 2023: Awareness – Utilization Gap in Support Services for First-Generation Students

Even though first-generation students are more likely to be aware of support services than their continuing-generation peers, we find that first-generation students have a larger percentage point gap in utilization of all support services, with the notable exception of academic advising (see chart below).

Driving Toward a Degree 2023: Awareness – Utilization Gap in Support Services, by First-Generation and Continuing-Generation

In speaking with some first-generations students, a potential reason for this lack of utilization of supports by first-generation students may be due to some stigma about seeking out help. If persistence and self-reliance got them to college, first-generation students share anecdotally that they are reluctant to seek assistance on how to navigate the new environment of college.  

Taking Action

As seen in the figure below, advisors identify first-generation students as a subpopulation who are at a relatively higher risk of dropping out, alongside students with financial need and students from underserved racial groups. At the same time, advisors are not able to track student support utilization (academic advising, financial aid counseling, mental health services, or career services amongst others) for these populations.

Driving Toward a Degree 2023: Student Subgroups at Risk of Dropping Out and Tracking of Their Student Support Utilization

Solution providers and institutional leaders need to work together to implement tracking of key student populations. In doing so, we can drive more awareness and utilization of student support services among first-generation students, students with financial need, and students from underserved racial groups; thereby increasing their feelings of belonging on campus, and improving retention and persistence outcomes. 

If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.