First-Generation Student Trends in the 2019 Niche College Applicant Survey of Student Confidence and Concerns

Estimated read time – 4 minutes

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First-generation students tend to face issues foreign to their peers, especially when it comes to understanding the process and vocabulary of applying to and enrolling in college. First-generation students are very diverse, and while they have some similar issues they cannot be treated as all being the same. A moment that will always stick with me from my time in enrollment management at a university is when a family asked me what a bachelor’s degree was. I had taken it for granted for too long that students and families knew what associate, bachelor’s, and master’s meant. As enrollment professionals, we should remember to avoid using acronyms and barrier language. 

In the survey results, 34% of students (5,783 of the 16,981 ) reported being the first in their family to attend college. While many of their responses mirrored their peers, their responses to household income highlighted the impact of attending college on future generations. First-generation students were 89% more likely to come from the lowest third of household incomes and were 66% less likely to come from the top third— just 1.8% came from families earning over $150k.

The challenge of financing education was compounded by lower GPAs reported by first-generation students, qualifying them for less aid tied to academic performance. first-generation students were 78% more likely to have a GPA below 3.0 and 50% more likely to have a GPA below 2.0. First-generation students were 31% less likely to have a GPA over a 4.0, the top of the GPA scale.

Differences During the Search and Application Stages

First-generation students were similar to their peers in terms of average visits, applications and acceptances, but they differed when it came to the type of institution that they were looking for. First-generation students were 18% more likely to consider a community or technical college. Students reporting a 4.0 GPA or higher were 58% more likely to consider a community or technical college. 

The campus setting didn’t vary much between first-generation students and their peers. They were, however, 27% less likely to be interested in attending a religiously affiliated campus and 23% more likely to be interested in applying to an HBCU (Historically black colleges and universities). The size and location of the campus did not differ between the two groups.

When asked about concerns and barriers that they faced, Niche found more issues for first-generation students. They were 23% less likely to respond that they had no issues with applying. First-generation students were 17% more likely to have no guidance counselor supporting them in their college search. The most significant difference— 53.9% of first-generation students reported that the cost to apply to colleges was a burden, 25% higher than their peers. 

Differences During the Enrollment Stage

The demographic responses paint a picture of first-generation students experiencing more financial difficulties. They came from households earning less and reported lower GPAs. They were just as likely to file a FAFSA, but were 6% less likely to receive financial aid from their college. The combined issues might explain why first-generation students are 60% more likely to work full time and 3% more likely to work part-time while attending college. They were also 8% more likely to take out loans, but slightly less likely to take out loans more than $10,000 in their first year. 

In all five questions about student confidence in the survey, Niche found first-generation students to be less confident; but generally only moderately so. The outlier was when asked if they would be able to afford the college in which they were enrolling. First-generation students were 38% less likely to respond that they were confident that they could afford their institution, at only 24.2%. This should be a major concern for all colleges; over 75% of their incoming first-generation students don’t believe that they can afford it, even though they are enrolling.

Using the Results

There are a number of ways that college counselors can use this information to support their first-generation students.
First, know which of your students will be the first in their family to attend college. Put together resources for both students and families to understand the language and deadlines of visiting and applying to colleges. Start having discussions about financing college through scholarships and grants early. Make sure to check in often and ensure they know how to use application fee waivers at the institutions they’re considering. They can use Niche to search for colleges with no application fee, are test optional, sort by the net price, explore their likelihood to be accepted, and then apply for scholarships.

Colleges and universities should work to offer services to first-generation students in the same way that they do for other student populations. Specialize your communication flows with information about financial aid opportunities, outcomes stories from other first-generation students, and information about campus work opportunities. Don’t forget to support their parents throughout the search, application, and yield process. They may be just as, or more, anxious than the students. Work with faculty and staff who were the first in their family to attend college to reach out to students and build relationships as advocates for these students and their families.

Segmented Analyses

Will Patch

Will Patch is the Enrollment Marketing Leader at Niche and helps clients with their enrollment strategies and digital outreach. He also shares insights and research on the Enrollment Insights blog and through webinars and a monthly newsletter. Prior to coming to Niche in the summer of 2019, he served Manchester University for 9 years in roles including Digital Strategist, Social Media Coordinator, and Associate Director for Admissions Operations. Outside of Niche, Will also coordinates the #EMChat community on Twitter, with weekly chats Thursdays at 9:00 PM Eastern.
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