Career Outcomes of First-Gen Students Match Peers', Data Show

February 27, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

First-generation students enrolled in college at lower rates than their peers whose parents attended college, but there were no statistically significant differences in full-time employment rates four years after degree attainment between the groups.

This is according to new information from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) examining the academic and postsecondary outcomes of first-generation students. Given NCAN and our members’ core mission of promoting college access and success for underrepresented populations like first-generation students, these new data are key to illuminating the continued need for this particular group.

As overall postsecondary attainment in the United States has increased in recent decades, the proportion of students whose parents had not attended college has predictably declined. However, demographic shifts, and continued inequitable access to college, still ensure that there is a sizeable population of first-generation students who need assistance getting to and through a postsecondary education.

The new data come from three NCES sources:

The definition of “first-generation” used in this brief is “undergraduate students whose parents had not participated in postsecondary education.” This differs from the definition used by many NCAN-member programs (more on that later).

The brief contrasts the outcomes of the first-generation students with two groups of “continuing-generation students”: those “with at least one parent who earned a bachelor’s degree and students with at least one parent who attended college but no parent who had earned a bachelor’s degree.”

The brief examines three questions: 

  1. How do high school students whose parents did not enroll in college fare in high school compare with their peers whose parents attended at least some college? At what rates do these groups transition to college and in what types of institutions do they enroll? 
  2. Compared with students whose parents attended at least some college, how do first-generation students fare after enrolling in postsecondary education? At what rates do they attain degrees or certificates or remain enrolled? 
  3. Among bachelor’s degree recipients, how do first-generation students fare compared with their continuing-generation peers in the labor market or further postsecondary enrollment? 

Some findings from the brief include:

  • First-generation students took high-level math courses (e.g., trigonometry/statistics/precalculus/calculus) and earned Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) credits at lower rates than continuing-generation students. 
  • Among sophomores, 72 percent of first-generation students had enrolled in postsecondary education by 2012 compared to 84 percent of continuing generation students whose parents had some college and 93 percent of students who parents had a bachelor’s degree.
  • Among sophomores, 58 percent of first-generation ones enrolled within three months of high school graduation, compared to 63 percent of “some college” continuing-generation students and 78 percent of “attained bachelor’s” continuing-generation students. 
  • First-generation students were 77 percent more likely to first attend a public two-year institution than students whose parent(s) earned a bachelor’s degree. First-generation students were more than three times as likely to first attend a private for-profit institution. Compared to students whose parent(s) had some college, first-generation students were less likely to first attend a public or private, nonprofit four-year institution.
  • Three years after enrolling in college in 2003-04, first-generation students were more likely to have stopped out (33 percent) than continuing-generation students whose parents had some college (26 percent) and whose parents earned a bachelor’s degree (14 percent).
  • Among 2007–08 bachelor’s degree recipients, there were no statistically significant differences in full-time employment rates four years after degree attainment. Median annual salaries were also not statistically different among the groups.

The results are a mixed bag for NCAN, our members, and the students we serve. On one hand, they paint a picture of the obstacles faced and differential attainment achieved by first-generation students. On the other hand, they indicate that first-generation students who surmount the considerable obstacles ahead of them are employed and paid at levels statistically indistinguishable from their continuing-generation peers. The focus, then, must continue to be on helping more first-generation students access and complete a postsecondary education.

This NCES brief is particularly useful because it compares three distinct groups of students. Two of these groups – student’s parent(s) never attended college and student’s parent(s) attended college but never attained a bachelor’s degree – are particularly relevant as comparison groups for NCAN members, whose definitions of “first-generation” vary. NCAN does not officially prescribe a definition of first-generation; instead we merely suggest that members be cognizant of the characteristic and track it in some way. Indeed, a common definition of “first-generation” is elusive

Late last year, NCAN released a two-question survey to members through Success Digest. The survey asked:

  1. How does your organization define "first-generation"?
    1. Parent(s) have no postsecondary experience (highest education is HS diploma, GED, or equivalent)
    2. Parent(s) have, at most, started an associate's degree but did not finish it
    3. Parent(s) have, at most, completed an associate's degree
    4. Parent(s) have, at most, started a bachelor's degree but did not finish it
    5. Other
  2. Must all parents/guardians in the student's household meet the criteria selected above?
    1. Yes
    2. No
    3. Other

Even among the 49 responding organizations, there was considerable variation in responses. One-third (33%) reported using “Parent(s) have, at most, started a bachelor's degree but did not finish it,” but that percentage grows to 47 percent when we include responses along some variation of “Parent(s) do not have a bachelor’s degree” or “Parent(s) do not have a bachelor’s degree from the United States.” Eighteen percent of respondents chose “Parent(s) have no postsecondary experience (highest education is HS diploma, GED, or equivalent)” while 16 percent chose “Parent(s) have, at most, started an associate's degree but did not finish it.” The remaining 19 percent used some other definition of first-generation. Respondents were clear about the second question. An overwhelming 92 percent said all parents and guardians in the student’s household must meet their program’s definition of first-generation. 

Given the “other” responses we received on this first survey, NCAN might reissue another survey to members to get more clarity. Preliminarily it seems that parental attainment of a bachelor’s degree is the most common indicator of first-generation status.

These NCES surveys and NCAN’s on this topic differ about as much as two instruments can in terms of size, scope, and methodology, but they both provide some insight to NCAN members on a question of interest. Stay tuned for future insights related to first-generation students’ outcomes and how NCAN and our members can continue to help these students on their paths to postsecondary success.

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