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First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education

A Brief Portrait

About 28 percent of the NELS 1992 12th-graders were first-generation students (figure 1). However, they represented 22 percent of those who entered postsecondary education between 1992 and 2000, indicating that first-generation students were less likely than other students to attend college within 8 years after high school. Roughly 4 in 10 (43 percent) first-generation students who entered postsecondary education during this period left without a degree by 2000, while 24 percent had graduated with a bachelor's degree (figure 1). The opposite pattern was observed for students whose parents were college graduates: a large majority (68 percent) had completed a bachelor's degree, while 20 percent left without a degree.

As in earlier studies (Ishitani 2003), this report found that first-generation students had some family and background characteristics that are associated with attrition. Compared with their peers whose parents were college graduates, first-generation students were more likely to be Black or Hispanic and to come from low-income families. They were less prepared academically for college as demonstrated by their lower rates of taking higher-level mathematics courses in high school, their lower senior achievement test scores, and their lower college entrance examination scores. They were also more likely to delay postsecondary entry, begin at a 2-year institution, and attend part time and discontinuously. These characteristics, as shown in earlier research, put them at potential risk for not persisting in their postsecondary studies and completing a degree (Nuñez and Cuccaro-Alamin 1998).

Figure 1. Percentage distribution of generation status in 1992 12th-graders; and of those who had enrolled in postsecondary education between 1992 and 2000, generation status by percentage distribution of postsecondary attainment and enrollment in 2000


Percentage distribution of generation status in 1992 12th-graders; and of those  who had enrolled in postsecondary education between 1992 and 2000, generation status by percentage distribution of postsecondary attainment and enrollment in 2000

NOTE: Except for the first two bar charts, all figures included only students for whom complete postsecondary transcripts were available and for whom parents' education was known. Standard error tables are available at Data Analysis System (DAS).
SOURCE: Figure A in U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts, NCES 2005-171, by Xianglei Chen and C. Dennis Carroll.

Credits Earned

Previous research has found that students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not earn as many college credits as their more advantaged peers (McCormick 1999). They trail their peers in credit accumulation as early as the first year of their enrollment. Because first-generation students are more likely to come from low-income families and have similar risk characteristics, they exhibited the same patterns. As shown in figure 2, first-generation students trailed their peers in the number of credits earned beginning in their first year of college: on average, they earned about 18 credits in the first year, compared with 25 credits earned by students whose parents had a bachelor's degree or higher. One-in-three first-generation students (33 percent) earned 10 or fewer credits in the first year, compared with 12 percent of those whose parents had at least a bachelor's degree. Like earlier studies demonstrating the relationship between credits earned and postsecondary outcomes (Adelman 1999; McCormick 1999), the current analysis shows that the fewer credits earned in the first year was associated with a reduced likelihood of attaining a degree and an increased time to degree for those who earned one (table 1).

Table 1. Generation status of 1992 12th-graders who had enrolled in postsecondary education between 1992 and 2000 and earned various numbers of undergraduate credits in the first year, by percentage distribution of postsecondary attainment and average time to bachelor's degree for those who earned a bachelor's degree


Postsecondary attainment
Generation status and credits earned in first year Any Degree Bachelor's
or higher
Associate's Certificate No degree Average number of years to B.A
Total 59.7 46.3 8.2 5.2 40.3 4.5
First Generation Students 46.8 23.5 12.7 10.5 53.2 4.8
0 - 10 Credits 20.0 1.3 8.2 10.6 80.0
11-29 Credits 50.8 30.1 14.5 6.2 49.2 5.1
30 Credits or more 84.8 46.6 16.2 22.1 15.2 4.2
Students whose parents had some college 52.9 38.5 9.5 4.9 47.1 4.7
0 - 10 Credits 14.3 4.4 4.9 5.0 85.7
11-29 Credits 55.3 39.8 10.8 4.7 44.7 5.0
30 Credits or more 86.9 70.2 11.5 5.2 13.1 4.3
Students whose parents had bachelor's or higher degree 74.3 67.5 4.3 2.5 25.7 4.4
0 - 10 Credits 22.4 9.4 5.8 7.3 77.6 6.7
11-29 Credits 71.3 63.6 5.4 2.3 28.7 4.7
30 Credits or more 93.1 89.1 2.8 1.2 7.0 4.1

‡Reporting standards not met. (Too few cases for a reliable estimate.)
NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Standard error tables are available at Data Analysis System (DAS)
SOURCE: Table 7 in U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts , NCES 2005-171, by Xianglei Chen and C. Dennis Carroll.

First-generation students continued to trail their peers in overall credit accumulation as they progressed through postsecondary education: they earned an average of 66 credits during their entire period of enrollment through 2000, compared with an average of 112 credits earned by students whose parents were college graduates (figure 2). Part of this difference reflects the fact that first-generation students were more likely than students whose parents had graduated from college to start college late, disrupt their enrollment, attend part time, and leave without a degree within the time period of the study. The gaps in credits, both overall and in the first year, were also found among those with bachelor's degree goals who attended 4-year institutions (figure 2).

Figure 2. Generation status of 1992 12th-graders who had enrolled in postsecondary education between 1992 and 2000 by average number of undergraduate credits earned in the first year and by 2000


Figure 2:  Generation status of 1992 12th-graders who had enrolled in postsecondary education between 1992 and 2000 by average number of undergraduate credits earned in the first year and by 2000

NOTE: Standard error tables are available at Data Analysis System (DAS).
SOURCE: Figure 5 in U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts, NCES 2005-171, by Xianglei Chen and C. Dennis Carroll.

References

Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment (PLLI 1999-8021). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

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.

McCormick, A.C. (1999). Credit Production and Progress Toward the Bachelor's Degree: An Analysis of Postsecondary Transcripts for Beginning Students at 4-Year Institutions (NCES 1999-179). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Nuñez, A.-M., and Cuccaro-Alamin, S. (1998). First-Generation Students: Undergraduates Whose Parents Never Enrolled in Postsecondary Education (NCES 98-082). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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