Earning a degree is the expected goal of most students as they begin their college experience. For first generation college students, however, this is less likely to be achieved compared to their peers with family members before them. First generation college student retention is challenging. 

Statistics show first generation college students are 1.3 times more likely to leave college during their first year. No one factor has led to this trend. Instead, a web of influences need to be considered and addressed if this trend is to be reversed. 

High School Support

High school guidance counselors are a critical part of preparing potential first generation students for college. Unfortunately, college prep is a diminishing part of high school guidance counselor’s role with students. This is particularly harmful to students who have no other source of reliable information and support for preparing for or deciding on a well-suited college for their interests, skills, and finances. Without early support from guidance counselors, first generation college student retention will continue to be an issue.  

Social Support

Students rely on their peers, family, and social network to help them understand the world at large. They make important life decisions based on the influence of the people in their lives. When information is lacking then, so too is the ability to thrive in an unfamiliar environment. First generation college student retention is impacted because of this lack of social support. Important people in their lives aren’t equipped to help decisions about college, no matter how much they want to help.

Economic Support

College is a significant financial investment. Weeding through financial aid, scholarships, payment structures, and budgeting to make college manageable takes knowledge and work that many first generation college students and their families don’t have. Without strong guidance, it’s difficult to find the resources to make college financially viable. First generation college student retention suffers when families come are not adequately supported through this process. This is especially true if they come from low-income backgrounds. The dropout rates of  first-generation students are strongly correlated to low-income students. 

Internal Support

The college years bring big developmental changes for all students. First generation students experience additional internal pressures while this internal development is happening. As the first in their family to attend college, they may carry the weight of pressure to succeed, pressure to be at home to help support their family financially, or pressure to remain self-disciplined and focused. First generation college student retention trends will only change if these students have support for their emotional and social wellbeing. 

Academic Support

While many college students struggle to adapt to the academic demands of college life, first generation college students may find this even more challenging. Because of their lack of first-hand accounts of family or lack of preparation from their high school, they may struggle with time management, academic expectations, and the academic/social life balance. When they find themselves underwater, they don’t often know who to turn to or how to find help on campus, which leads to the decision to end their college experience early.

While first generation college student retention is challenging, it can be addressed through intentional shifts in high school support, social support, economic support, internal support, and academic support.