Making their way: An interpretive case study of male first-generation students attending a highly selective liberal arts college

Peltz, Mark
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This qualitative study focused on the experiences of eight male first-generation college students attending Kenmont College (pseudonym), a highly selective, residential liberal arts college located in the Midwestern United States. While first-generation college students have been studied in various contexts, very little is known about what attracts these students to highly selective institutions, particularly liberal arts colleges, and what environmental attributes influence their curricular and co-curricular experiences through college. Using a collective case study as the methodological roadmap (Case, 1995), the students, each viewed as a distinct case, were purposively selected from a sample of 28 male first-generation students who matriculated at Kenmont College in the fall of 2009 and persisted to their final year of undergraduate study.

To better understand how this small cohort of first-generation college students came to know, chose to attend, and, ultimately, experienced the academic and campus environments at Kenmont College, this study drew upon human ecology and social capital theories to frame the research. Applying cross-case analytic techniques enabled several themes to emerge from the case participants' experiences and environments. Within their pre-college environments, parental influences, siblings, friendship groups, and schooling experiences--from elementary through secondary--emerged as salient themes. In terms of the participants' college selection process, institutional reputation, academic prestige, financial aid, and enrollment and class size emerged as the primary attractors to Kenmont College. While attending Kenmont, themes emerged from both the curricular and co-curricular environments. Within the curricular environment, the case participants referenced the college's academic expectations, interactions with faculty, classroom environment, and structure and content of the liberal arts curriculum as distinctive features. Within the co-curricular environment, the case participants cited the intellectual student body, supportive campus atmosphere, campus diversity, and abundant learning opportunities as influential features of their college experience. The collective narrative from these eight participants reveals that dynamic and complex environmental features--both before and at college-- influenced their decisions to attend and persist through Kenmont College.

Of import to several stakeholders, the findings from this study are particularly germane to the work of faculty, staff, and administrators at residential liberal arts colleges akin to Kenmont College. In the absence of a formal, visible support program for first-generation students (e.g., TRIO Student Support Services), the findings from this study may compel these institutions to reconsider the ways they identify, engage with, and unveil the first-generation student community on their campuses. Additionally, how these educational pioneers are welcomed, oriented, and advised on their respective campuses may also warrant additional consideration. Despite this study's contributions, additional research focused on the role of first-generation student birth order, friendship groups, and race and gender is needed. Furthermore, a longitudinal study following first-generation students before, during, and after college would contribute significantly to our collective understanding of this important population of college students.

college students, first-generation, human ecology, liberal arts, persistence, retention