What’s in a Name? The Impact of Divergent Definitions of First-Generation College Students
by Sanga Kim & Nicholas A. Bowman - March 01, 2019
Background/Context: Higher education research has frequently identified disparities between first-generation college students and continuing-generation students in terms of college experiences and success. However, researchers and policymakers have used various definitions to indicate first-generation status, which can lead to confusion and may even affect the results of studies on this topic.
Purpose/Objective: In this paper, we considered how the use of divergent definitions of first-generation college students may influence the findings of research on college student experiences and outcomes.
Research Design: Using the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study: 2012-2014 (BPS:12/14), we conducted regression analyses to examine the relationship between the measurement of parental education and various outcome measures, including college experiences, satisfaction, academic confidence, grades, retention, and persistence.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Choosing divergent definitions of first-generation status frequently affected the results, and the differential findings did not have a consistent, predictable pattern. Therefore, researchers should provide a clear description of how they define first-generation status as well as a rationale for using that definition.
Colleges and universities have long been concerned about the college adjustment and academic success of first-generation students. These students tend to differ in many important ways from continuing-generation students. Relative to continuing-generation students, first-generation students are more likely to belong to an underrepresented racial minority group (Redford & Mulvaney Hoyer, 2017); they have lower family incomes, educational expectations, high school grades, and strength of high school curricula (Cataldi, Bennett, & Chen, 2018; Redford & Mulvaney Hoyer, 2017); and they have less knowledge about how to navigate the college preparation and decision process as well as the transition to college (e.g., Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996; Zwerling & London, 1992). First-generation students are also more likely to delay college enrollment after graduating from high school and are less likely to attend a selective institution (Cataldi et al., 2018; Redford & Mulvaney Hoyer, 2017). During the college years, first-generation students work for pay more hours per week, are less engaged in some academic and social experiences, and are ultimately less likely to receive a postsecondary degree (Cataldi et al., 2018; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004; Terenzini et al., 1996).
However, this set of findings overlooks the important issue of who exactly counts as a first-generation student. Perhaps surprisingly, no single definition is widely shared. According to a systematic review of empirical studies in higher education journals, nine different definitions have been used to indicate first-generation status (Peralta & Klonowski, 2017). This topic has also received attention in the broader media and public discourse. For instance, Sharpe (2017) provides a real-life example of a student whose mother had never enrolled in college and whose father died when he was a toddler. The father had a college degreebut very little interaction with his sonso should this student be considered first-generation?
To explore the consequences of employing different definitions of first-generation status, Toutkoushian, Stolberg, and Slaton (2018) considered eight operational definitions within a nationally representative dataset. Across these definitions, the percentage of first-generation students ranged from 22% (neither parent ever attended any postsecondary education) to 77% (includes everyone except those whose parents both have at least a bachelors degree). They also found that the relationship between first-generation status and students college preparation and college enrollment behavior sometimes varied as a function of this definition, but no consistent pattern regarding the magnitude of this relationship was apparent.
To help researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who must make decisions about who they should classify as first-generation, the present study examined the impact of first-generation definitions for predicting college experiences and outcomes. We focused on the two definitions of first-generation status that are the most commonly used in previous research (Peralta & Klonowski, 2017): neither parent has attended any college (strict definition), and neither parent has obtained a bachelors degree (broad definition). Specifically, we explored differences in college experiences and outcomes between three groups: (a) students who fit the strict definition of first-generation, (b) students who fit the broadbut not the strictdefinition (i.e., with at least one parent who attended college but did not receive a bachelors), and (c) students who have at least one parent with a bachelors degree. This middle group is particularly important, since these are the students who are classified differently depending upon the definition.
In the limited previous work using those three parental education categories, Pascarella et al. (2004) found many differences in college experiences and credits earned between groups with the lowest and highest parental education, but few significant differences between the two groups of first-generation students. In addition, only occasional differences in learning and cognitive outcomes were apparent across any of the three parental education groups within their sample of 18 four-year institutions. In a descriptive report from the National Center for Education Statistics, Cataldi et al. (2018) observed trends such that continuing-generation students had the highest levels of persistence in college, while students who fit the strict definition of first-generation status had the lowest levels. The present study will extend and improve upon this previous work by analyzing a nationally representative sample (while accounting for the complex sampling design), predicting a different set of important college experiences and outcomes (such as campus climate, use of student support services, and retention at the same institution), and conducting analyses with and without control variables (to determine both overall group differences and whether these differences persist when accounting for other relevant factors).
DATA SOURCES AND PARTICIPANTS
This study examined the restricted-use version of the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study: 2012-2014 (BPS:12/14), which includes undergraduates attending two-year and four-year institutions. The analytic sample contained 24,000 college students (rounded to nearest ten per IES policy) who completed the base-year survey in their first year of college (2011-2012) and the first follow-up survey two years later (2013-2014). Within this sample, 38% of students fit the strict definition of first-generation (neither parent attended any postsecondary education), 28% were in the middle category (at least one parent attended college but none received a bachelors degree), and 34% were continuing-generation students by both definitions (at least one parent received a bachelors degree).
Two binary dependent variables (0 = no, 1 = yes) indicated whether the student (a) was retained at the same institution, and (b) persisted in postsecondary education to the end of the third year (students who received a degree were also counted as retained or persisting). Students cumulative college GPA was examined at the end of the first year and the third year of college. Several college outcomes and experiences were assessed using single-item scales (1 = strongly disagree, to 5 = strongly agree): college sense of belonging, college satisfaction with academics, college satisfaction with social life, academic confidence, quality of faculty interactions, and quality of peer interactions. The overall frequency of using student support services was computed via the sum of five items (0 = did not use, 1 = used service): academic advising, academic support services, career services, financial aid services, and student health services. Finally, we created a five-item scale that assessed students perception about importance of these same student support services (for all items, 1 = not at all important, to 4 = very important; Cronbachs alpha = .83 for the first year and .86 for the third year). All non-binary outcome measures were standardized with a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one to facilitate interpretation of effect sizes.
The primary independent variables were the levels of parental education. Dummy-coded variables indicated students who fit the strict definition (neither parent attended any postsecondary education) and continuing-generation students (at least one parent has a bachelors degree), with students who only fit the broader definition of first-generation as the referent group. Student-level demographic control variables were race/ethnicity (dummy-coded variables for Asian American, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, and other, with White as the referent group), sex (0 = male, 1 = female), non-traditional-age (at least 25 years old; 0 = no, 1= yes), U.S. born (0 = no, 1 = yes), and family income (while considering who constitutes the relevant family for dependent versus independent students). We also included precollege academic achievement: high school GPA, highest level of high school mathematics (1 = less than Algebra 2, to 5 = Calculus or math beyond calculus), and taking any college credits in high school (0 = no, 1 = yes). Institution-level control variables were institutional control (dummy-coded for private not-for-profit and private forprofit, with public as the referent group), institutional type (0 = two-year, 1 = four-year), and selectivity (via BPS categories: 1 = open enrollment, to 4 = very selective).
Logistic regression analyses were conducted to predict the binary outcomes of retention and persistence, whereas ordinary least squares (OLS) multiple regression analyses were used to predict the continuous outcomes. Weights were employed to account for the complex sampling design of the BPS dataset so as to make the analyses representative of all entering U.S. undergraduates and to model these appropriately within the multilevel dataset. Because some of the outcomes were collected in two different academic years (2011-2012 and 2013-2014), analyses were conducted separately for each year, and the institutional predictor that corresponded to the appropriate year was used (since these values changed over time for the students who transferred to another college).
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The results for parental education categories predicting all outcome measures appear in Table 1. Given the brevity of this research note, this discussion will simply provide a broad summary of the findings as well as how these align with prior research. Across several different outcomes, strict-definition first-generation students differed significantly from students who would be classified as first-generation by the broader definition (i.e., the referent group in these regression analyses). The students who fit only within this broader definition also differed significantly from continuing-generation students on several outcomes. Some of the significant results for both parental education groups became nonsignificant when controlling for various demographics, precollege achievement, and institutional attributes.
Table 1. Results for regression analyses predicting college outcomes and experiences.
Note. Weights were used in all analyses to account for the complex sampling design. Logistic regression analyses were used to predict the binary retention and persistence outcomes. All other outcomes were standardized with a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one to facilitate interpretation of effect sizes. Control variables were race/ethnicity, sex, family income, non-traditional age, U.S. born, high school GPA, highest level of high school mathematics, taking college credits in high school, institutional control, institutional type, and institutional selectivity. *p < .05 **p < .01 ***p < .001
Specifically, the direction of significant group differences was consistent with the trends for college retention and persistence in previous research (Cataldi et al., 2018), such that strict first-generation students are less likely to be retained or persist than are first-generation students who only meet the broad definition, but continuing-generation students are more likely to be retained or persist than are broad first-generation students. College GPA and academic confidence were also greater for continuing-generation than for broad first-generation students, along with lower college GPA for strict-definition than for broad-definition first-generation students in one analysis. The significant patterns for persistence, college GPA, and academic confidence were generally consistent even when adding numerous control variables within the analyses.
However, the results for student support services were potentially surprising, which is more aligned with Toutkoushian et al.s (2018) finding of a lack of predictable pattern across first-generation definitions. Significant differences occurred for all three groups, such that first-generation students were the least likely to use these services while placing the greatest importance on their availability; the opposite pattern was observed for continuing-generation students. Some of these significant findings persisted even in the presence of various control variables. Strict first-generation students were also more satisfied with their first-year social life than their broader-definition peers.
Finally, almost no significant differences were observed across any groups when predicting college satisfaction with academics and social life as well as quality of interactions with faculty and other students. The only exception is that strict first-generation students report greater satisfaction with their social life than do broad first-generation students.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
In summary, the choice of definition for first-generation status matters for predicting college student outcomes and experiences, but the impact of this definition is often difficult to predict in advance. Across the outcomes examined in this study, the group differences were sometimes larger when using the strict definition of first-generation status, but they were occasionally smaller, and they sometimes did not differ at all. As a result, consumers of research cannot simply infer what the results would have been if the original study had employed a different definition. Researchers should be explicit about the definition that they are using. When first-generation status constitutes an important part of the paper (rather than simply serving a control variable), the choice of definition should be explained and justified. Furthermore, whenever possible and appropriate, we recommend examining more than two groups (i.e., not simply first-generation versus continuing-generation) in order to provide additional insights into the link between parental education and college students experiences and outcomes.
For researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who need to define a single group of first-generation students, we hesitate to recommend a single best definition, since we believe that this should vary depending upon the context in which the definition is used. For instance, the present study examined hundreds of two-year and hundreds of four-year institutions, so a large proportion and number of students fit the strict definition as well as the broad (but not strict) definition, which facilitates the use of multiple groups. However, at a selective, private four-year college, the proportion and number of students who fit the strict definition may be small, and a student whose parents received associates degrees may still feel very out of place at that institution relative to ones peers (and may therefore exhibit adverse outcomes). Therefore, researchers who are studying that college might choose to use the broader first-generation definition and explain why this choice is appropriate in that context; practitioners and administrators at that college may also use a broader definition for these same reasons. From a policy and practice perspective, using a broad definition of first-generation status to determine program eligibility allows more students to receive resources, which may be quite desirable given the disparities in college success outcomes between continuing-generation students and students who only fit the broad definition of first-generation. Overall, a continued focus on clarity and transparency regarding these definitions will help improve research, policy, and practice for students whose families have less experience with college attendance and completion.
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Peralta, K. J., & Klonowski, M. (2017). Examining conceptual and operational definitions of first-generation college student in research on retention. Journal of College Student Development, 58(4), 630-636.
Redford, J., & Hoyer, K. M. (2017). First-generation and continuing-generation college students: A comparison of high school and postsecondary experiences (NCES 2018-009). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Sharpe, R. (2017, November 3). Are you first gen? Depends on whos asking. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/education/edlife/first-generation-college-admissions.html
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