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  • Writer's pictureBryan Reece, Ph.D.

Why College Is More Difficult for First-Generation Students

First-generation students often come to college with a limited view of what the world has to offer them. This is largely due to the people who have been in their lives while growing up. We are all born into a trajectory for our lives that shapes the choices we make. We are born into a community of socializing agents who establish this trajectory and influence our choices throughout  our formative years. Our family, friends, colleagues,  neighbors, teachers, coaches, and religious leaders are present throughout our lives. In the day-to-day exchanges with these people, we come to understand who we are and who we think we can become. And because Americans tend to live in communities with similar socio-economic status (SES), the messages we receive from these people are very consistent, setting us on paths or trajectories that suggest what we can offer the world and what the world has to offer us. This part of our socialization leads to a suggested set of skills to develop and a likely set of jobs to pursue. I am not saying that individuals have no control over the lives they choose, but I am saying these socializing agents have inexorable influence over us.

The absorption of expectations from our socializing agents can be obvious, like an explicit conversation from a parent or relative who is concerned about the choices you are making. In a family that values education highly, direct conversations will likely arise between parents and children relative to academic performance. Families that place a great deal of emphasis on the interdependence of individuals in the family will likely have explicit conversations if a member of the family is perceived to be spending too much time away from family. These are overt examples; however, there are millions of more subtle messages communicated to us during our formative years that are usually unrecognized. For example, a parent who gives their son construction tools as a gift and a parent who gives their son books as a gift are both making a gesture based in love. Thy are presenting a gift. But both gifts carry with them a suggestion to each boy. One says I expect you to develop blue-collar related skills and the other white-collar related skills. When a girl is encouraged to defer during moments of conflict, hold back during political discussions, or look for part-time work as a babysitter, these are all encouragements that point her in a particular direction, and when these suggestions come from the most important people in her life, from the people who love her and the people she in turn loves, she absorbs them at a very deep level. In this way, people close to her have a tremendous impact on what she thinks of herself and what she might be able to do professionally. 

This process plays out all over the world, with some kids receiving millions of suggestions that will encourage them to move in the direction of academic success and growing career opportunities while other kids receive millions of suggestions that encourage them to move in the direction of jobs that do not require college preparation and often lead to more difficult lives. Students from historically underserved communities overwhelmingly experience a socialization process that points them in a direction away from higher education and away from careers that will lead to more prosperous lives.

This observation leads to one of the most important roles higher education can play in American society. If we hope to expand access to the American Dream for students from historically underserved communities, we need to find students who are on non-academic trajectories, leading to declining jobs, and change the trajectory of their lives by pointing them in the direction of jobs that are on the rise. We are trying to re-track their career goals to technical or professional trajectories. To do this, we must introduce socializing agents into students' lives who are so influential that they are able to counter the weight of a student’s socialization history and alter a lifetime of deeply established patterns.

This goal is challenging. A student who has been raised in a non-college attending family often feels out of place in an academic environment. This feeling is something that I personally experienced during my early college years, and it is something that is repeated over and over during focus group meetings I have held with first-generation students. The feeling of being placed out of your environment is palpable, strong, and very difficult to overcome. People whose families have encouraged education and professional careers often do not understand this phenomenon and fail to give it the attention required for students who are experiencing it.

To capture a sense of this discomfort, imagine that a good friend invites you to a religious meeting that is extremely different from anything you are familiar with. For example, if you come from a Christian background, imagine your friend has invited you to a Hare Krishna, Wicca or Hindu event. You agree to go because you do not want to offend your friend and you can tell that this is important to him or her. As part of this thought experiment, choose a specific religion and picture yourself actually going to the event with your friend. Imagine the people you will meet, how they may be dressed, the greetings that might be extended to you, the music and messages you might hear hear, the world and metaphysical view you will be presented, the rituals you may be encouraged to participate in, and the invitation you might receive to join this religious community.  You would probably feel very awkward and out of place. In fact, you would probably feel a strong desire to exit the environment as soon as possible. This is how many students from historically underserved communities feel when they initially enter an academic environment.

Let me turn the screw one more notch. Imagine that you return to this religious meeting a few more times and became convinced that you want to join because you truly believe you will become a better person as a result of joining the community. You change your hair, your clothing, your beliefs, your language, your aspirations, your network of friends, and more. As this becomes evident in your life, how will your close friends and family react? Will they say you have “changed” with a derogatory tone? Will they treat you like you have made a mistake? Will some suggest you have been brainwashed? Will some try to get you to revert to your previous lifestyle? Will some stop associating with you all together? The unfortunate answer to these questions for most people is yes.  

Such conflict describes what some of our first-generation students experience as they first enter the academic community. As they become college students, they start to entertain new ideas, they speak a little differently, they may start dressing in a new style, and they may change in many other ways. This is a normal part of development. However, as they make these changes, many first-generation students report that they receive discouragement from important people in their lives. People who love them more than anyone else make subtle and sometimes obvious statements belittling their efforts to grow. Male students often have men in their network of socializing agents challenge their masculinity as they pursue academic endeavors. Female students are often accused of deserting their families while they spend time in study groups. Students of color are accused of losing touch with their race or ethnicity. Students are subtly told they think they are better than everyone else when they express a new idea or speak with an expanded vocabulary. There are many more examples that students have revealed in focus groups of first-generation students. The salient point here is that college is hard enough with all the papers, exams, lectures, and required readings. Adding a set of socializing agents to the mix who actually add to the difficulty is overwhelming for many of these students. For this reason, students need to incorporate new socializing agents into their lives and/or somehow help existing socializing agents act in a more supportive manner.

We also must recognize that almost every student experiences a low point from time to time. This is completely normal. Regardless of family background, students will at times feel discouraged, low, disillusioned, lost, full of self-doubt, unsure, anxious, or overwhelmed. Some students have socializing agents that act as social capital during these times. Their socializing agents believe pursuing a college degree is important and will encourage the student to persevere. Other students -- all too often students from historically underserved communities -- have socializing agents who do not help in times like this. With love in their heart (truly), they see the student struggling at this low point and use their vulnerability as an opportunity to bring them back into the fold, pull them from the academic environment that they should “not have been part of in the first place.” This pressure is a challenge that first generation students are much more likely to face than students from families with college going histories. 

Students from historically underserved communities more often attend colleges where it is difficult to find the support. It is difficult for them to establish new socializing agents, especially faculty members. They typically attend colleges that are large commuter schools with high student-to-faculty ratios. For example, across the 115 California community colleges, 1,591,584 students took courses during the fall term of 2018. They were taught by 20,977 tenure-track faculty and 16,881.6 fulltime equivalent adjunct faculty (California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, 2020). This means that throughout the system, there are 42 students for every 1 fulltime equivalent faculty member, or a 42:1 student-to-faculty ratio. When I was a faculty member, I would typically have 800+ students per year. I taught especially large sections in political science because my high-attendance courses helped offset the more expensive courses at the college like Nursing. Regardless, I found it impossible to develop a relationship with every student. Every term, I developed relationships with some students, got to know their personal situations and tried to help them succeed. But it was impossible to build a relationship like that with 800+ students. This kind of learning environment is difficult for students. Many of them move through their academic journey in anonymity, with very few people around them who are tuned in to the challenges they face. 

In contrast, students from affluent families often attend college and universities that boast of student-to-faculty ratios that are very low, some of them as low as 6:1, meaning for every six students at the institution, there is one faculty member. This creates an environment where faculty can know their students and participate in their lives accordingly. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who was a tenured faculty member at an elite private university on the East coast while  I was a tenured faculty member at a community college in Los Angeles County. We were trading classroom stories, and she told me that when she starts class, if she sees that one of her students is absent, she often picks up her phone, calls the student, and tells them to get into class. She taught one or two courses per semester (in addition to research responsibilities) with about 20 students in each class. In that environment, she could take a very active role in each student’s life. I taught seven courses per semester with 50 to 65 students in each class. I remember thinking how impossible it would be for me to look out in the room, know who was absent and make a phone call to each absent student. The reason for this difference, of course, is money. Colleges and universities with very low student-to-faculty ratios are expensive. One of the ways we keep expenses down for low- and moderate-income students is by having faculty teach many students, and while this practice addresses a significant financial hurdle, it creates severe disadvantages related to learning. 

College students from historically underserved communities are typically on a journey with hundreds of hurdles in front of them, and they often walk down their paths with a great deal of anonymity. As first-generation students, they are likely to have no one at home who can help them navigate this path. And given the high student-to-faculty ratios at their colleges, there is likely no one on campus helping them navigate their path. This is one of the major reasons completion rates for first-generation students are significantly lower than for other students. At community colleges, for example, the most positive national studies find that about half of their students finish and half fail to complete their AA degrees or certificates. Some studies put the completion rate as low as 25%. 

If we agree that negative socialization influences and a lack of personal support on campuses present overwhelming barriers for first-generation students, then it seems clear that we must interrupt this sense of anonymity by leveraging new technologies, changing our services practices, and developing new resources. This is the primary reason JourneyGPS was established. You can find more information about our solution for the problem at www.


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