Summary and Conclusions
Whether high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education and whether postsecondary students reach their degree goals depend on many factors, but those whose parents have no education beyond high school are considerably less likely to succeed than those whose parents have completed a bachelor’s degree. Students who are nonwhite or from low-income families tend to be disproportionately represented among those whose parents have low education. Multivariate analysis confirms that parents’ education remains significant for gaining access to postsecondary education and for persistence and bachelor’s degree attainment at 4-year institutions even after controlling for other factors such as income, educational expectations, academic preparation, parental involvement, and peer influence.
Readers should not interpret the findings in this analysis as implying that the availability of student financial aid has no effect on the postsecondary enrollment and persistence of first-generation students. The availability and awareness of financial aid help remove the barriers to enrolling in college and remaining there. The independent effects of financial aid on the enrollment and persistence of first-generation students have not been explicitly considered in this analysis.
Over time, increases in educational attainment among young adults (who may eventually become parents themselves) may reduce the proportion of students disadvantaged by low parental education. Between 1971 and 1998, the proportion of 25- to 29-year-olds who earned a bachelor’s degree or higher rose (from 22 to 31 percent), as did the proportion who attended some college (from 44 to 66 percent) (Indicator 59, The Condition of Education 1999, NCES 1999-022). Whether this will result in a net decline in the percentage of children whose parents did not attend college will depend on the balance between the trend toward a more highly educated population and demographic trends related to marriage, childbearing, and immigration.
In the meantime, evidence from the studies summarized here suggests that programs and practices that encourage first-generation students to take academically challenging courses in high school and counsel students and their parents about preparing for college may hold promise for broadening the access of these students to postsecondary education and helping them succeed once enrolled.