Investigating and comparing operationalizations of first-generation students: Similarities and differences in the characteristics, experiences, and one-year persistence of students across multiple levels of parental education
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First-generation students have received considerable attention though the definitions and operationalizations used vary. Prior studies used dichotomous groups, treating students whose parents had little or no college education as homogenous in terms of first-year experiences and persistence. This study sought to determine if the inconsistencies in how first-generation is defined and operationalized influence our understandings of these students and their success.
Findings revealed that the inconsistencies in how first-generation is defined and operationalized limits our understanding of these students and their success. Having at least one parent who completed a bachelor’s degree is an important dividing line for successful first-year experiences and is the criteria that should be used to define first-generation students. The results of this study challenge conventional assumptions about the distribution of social and cultural capital across multiple levels of parental education as having a parent who has some experiences in college or a parent who completed a two-year degree provides few benefits that translate into first-year experiences.
Comparing students across multiple levels of parental education illustrated that operationalizing parental education as dichotomous masks important differences among students including the finding that students whose parents had the least education had the greatest number of interactions in characteristics that were associated with one-year persistence, and that students in the ‘middle’ groups—those that are excluded from first-generation status in some definitions—struggled the most in first-year experiences.
First-generation students should be defined as those whose highest level of parental education is less than a bachelor’s degree. Using multiple parental education groups or degrees of first-generation status could help practitioners to connect students to resources efficiently. Practitioners are encouraged to assess new students’ noncognitive college readiness. Additional recommendations include adopting a mentoring approach to support first-generation students and connecting students with on-campus employment opportunities. Future research should use the community cultural wealth and intersectionality models to extend understanding of the strengths and culture associated with multiple levels of parental education and various social identities. Finally, future research should examine multiple levels of parental education at other institution types including two-year colleges.