What can Universities do to include first-generation students?

StudentPulse Team
January 2, 2023

There are now more first-generation students attending university than ever before. In the UK, almost one in five students are first-generation students, while in the US, this figure is even higher, with 33% of college-students coming from a first-generation background.

First-generation students – as the name suggests - are those who are the first generation in their family to go to university. Unlike their peers, first-generation students do not have parents that went through the experience of higher education. As such, these students may be unfamiliar with the norms, expectations and processes of higher education. They also may not have a readily available network of connections to tap on for guidance and advice.

All in all, first-generation students face significant barriers that can affect their success at university. According to a study by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, first-generation students were found to have underperformed their peers on a number of university outcomes, including attainment of qualifications as well as likelihood of completion.

However, if universities incorporate appropriate support systems into their curriculum and on-campus services, more first-generation students can be supported in their university journey. This may well go beyond helping these students better achieve their potential as graduates, as it could also set off a virtuous cycle for the generation after them.

In this blog, I will explore what universities can do to promote a more inclusive environment while enhancing outcomes for this student group.

Why are more students becoming first-gen?

There are several reasons why the number of first-gen students has risen in recent years. One common factor is the increasingly global nature of education. Another reason is the increased immigration to a particular area, resulting in more first-generation students from immigrant families.

Also, advances in technology have broadened access. Many more students can now continue their studies from high school onward through online degree programs and distance learning courses.

To discuss the topic of inclusion and first-generation students, I invited Nehir Akbulut and Boo van den Bemt on a StudentPulse podcast episode. Nehir is a first-generation student from a Turkish family background and is currently studying at the University of Applied Sciences Leiden in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, Boo is a Dutch student, studying Education and Child Psychology also at the University of Applied Sciences Leiden. Both students are on the student council board together and are passionate about student well-being.

Common issues encountered by first-gen students

According to Nehir, there are a few disadvantages that come with being a first-gen student, some obvious and some more surprising:

  • High academic pressure generates stress. Being the first to do anything comes with the burden of expectations and being the first in your family to go to college is no different. First-gen students may find themselves being positioned as the pride of the family and expected to do well academically. Although this can be a source of motivation for students, it can also lead to undue stress.
  • Lack of guidance. First-gen students may find it challenging to seek guidance on their studies from their parents, as their parents have not experienced it for themselves and may not be able to help. The problem is exacerbated for those who are an only child.
  • Demotivated by stigma. Though often well-meaning, mentors, fellow students and teachers may treat and speak to a first-gen student as if they were disadvantaged or as though their efforts were heroic or against all odds, when the student themselves may not feel that way. This may cause the student to feel self-conscious, creating or adding to a sense of stigma about being a first-gen student.

How can Universities include first-generation students?

Boo and Nehir share that universities can take active steps to support their first-gen students better. Teachers, mentors and even non-first gen students can be trained not to place assumptions on first-gen students that deepen a self-perception of being disadvantaged. This does not help and could aggravate the challenge, making first-gen students feel even more like outsiders than they may already do.

Instead, the goal should be to understand each student’s unique circumstances and background, and what this means in terms of supporting their journey. Being attentive, listening to your students and giving them an opportunity to voice their thoughts can go a long way in improving their well-being. For example, Boo shares that in the Netherlands they have a Student Well-being Week which aims to start conversations with students through simple questions like ‘How are you doing?’

Students should also be given the chance to connect with their own peers or mentors, especially in their first-year of study, to get the support they need in their studies that they may not be able to find at home.

To this end, StudentPulse as a micro-survey tool with real-time data analytics can support universities and student councils to reach out to students and check-in on their well-being at regular intervals while automatically directing them to access support such as mentors, student peers, or counselling services should they need it.