Improving College Outcomes for First-Generation Students

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By Janet K. Holt & Laura B. Winter | In this article, the authors describe a multi-site case study of five 4-year postsecondary institutions in Missouri that used evidence-based strategies to support first-generation students in their efforts to persist in and complete college. In the case study, data from qualitative interviews of university administrators in academic and student support services, as well as focus groups of underrepresented students, were analyzed and coded using grounded theory. The resulting themes were compared to prior research on first-generation students, resulting in three broad areas of evidence-based practice with potential to increase college success for first-generation students. These institutional practices included providing (a) a caring and coordinated community of support, (b) early college experiences, and (c) tutoring and mentoring supports. The authors present examples of each practice, along with implications for advancing policy, practice, and scholarship around college persistence and completion for first-generation students.

Author Note

Janet K. Holt, Department of Educational Leadership, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; Laura B. Winter, St. Louis Graduates.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Laura Winter, Project Director, St. Louis Graduates, c/o St. Louis Community Foundation, #2 Oak Knoll Park, St. Louis, MO 63105 E-mail:

A group of eight multi-ethnic teenagers, 17 and 18 years old, carrying book bags, standing together outside a school building. They are high school seniors or university freshmen.First-generation students face more challenges in college than their peers whose parents have at least one college degree (Chen & Carroll, 2005; Ishitani, 2006). One of these challenges relates to their limited cultural and social capital in the higher education university environment (i.e., knowledge of the campus and its values; logistical knowledge of the admissions and financial aid application processes; understanding how to navigate key decisions regarding course load, academic advisement, and other academic supports; and general knowledge about higher education) compared to their peers with parents who have more college experience (Bourdieu, 1977, 1986; Coleman, 1988; McCarron & Inkelas, 2006; McConnell, 2000; McDonough, 1997). Going off to college and leaving one’s home support system is difficult for many students, but first-generation students face the added burden of entering their new college environment lacking key knowledge that would enable them to overcome their early challenges on campus.

Some early attempts to increase first-generation students’ graduation rates focused narrowly on providing additional financial support to these students; however, it became clear that academic and other supports were needed to address these students’ needs (Schorr, 2017). More recently, programs have adopted a more comprehensive approach, offering a range of student supports, such as mentoring and advising, financial aid, social supports, and institutional networking programs, while still capitalizing on the students’ strengths (see Conefrey, 2018; Schwartz et al., 2017; Whitley, Benson, & Wesaw, 2018), in an effort to equip first-generation students with the knowledge and strategies that their continuing-generation peers may have directly or tacitly acquired from their families and college-going peers. In this study, we sought examples of promising comprehensive student support programs for first-generation students through a multi-site case study, identifying key components of these programs as well as the conditions and contexts by which they can be successfully replicated.

Literature Review

National Landscape for First-Generation Students

National studies have reported statistics on first-generation students’ characteristics and college outcomes. First-generation students tend to be older and non-White, have dependents, and have lower median incomes than their peers (Postsecondary National Policy Institute, 2016). Additionally, because there is considerable overlap between first-generation and low-income status (Redford & Mulvaney Hoyer, 2017), many first-generation students experience an additional layer of financial challenges while in college; consequently, they often work more hours and borrow more money (Postsecondary National Policy Institute, 2016). Moreover, first-generation students often attend postsecondary institutions with lower completion rates (e.g., for-profit, two-year, and online institutions) and are more likely to attend college part-time (Postsecondary National Policy Institute, 2016).

Nationwide data on college outcomes have indicated that first-generation students are less likely to complete their bachelor’s degree in six years than their peers whose parents had at least some college experience (50% vs. 64%, respectively; DeAngelo, Franke, Hurtado, Pryor, & Tran, 2011). When disaggregated by income status, there is a 15 percentage point six-year bachelor’s degree completion gap for low-income students (41% vs. 56%) and a 19 percentage point six-year completion gap for non-low-income students (54% vs. 73%) between first-generation students and their peers (Pell Institute, 2018).

Although national data are essential for describing the state of affairs for first-generation students, these data are limited in their ability to explain why such patterns exist and what supports and strategies can help increase completion rates for first-generation students. As Pike and Kuh (2005) suggested, single institutional studies are needed to determine which interventions hold the most promise for supporting first-generation students to graduation.

Identified Needs of First-Generation Students

First-generation students tend to be less integrated into the college environment. Pike and Kuh (2005) reported that first-generation students were less engaged in college, less likely to participate in diverse college experiences, and also perceived college as less supportive. However, students with high educational aspirations and who lived on campus were much more likely to succeed, regardless of their generation status. These findings confirm the results of previous research indicating that having a peer support network of other college students who are academically engaged can help mitigate the challenges that first-generation students face when transitioning to college (Kuh et al., 1991; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).

Evidence of the importance of peer social interactions for first-generation students has been mixed (Astin, 1993; Inkelas, Daver, Vogt, & Leonard, 2007; Inkelas & Weisman, 2003; Newcomb, 1962; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004), indicating perhaps that first-generation students’ academic adjustment may depend more on co-curricular and structured academic activities than social interactions with peers (Pascarella et al., 2004; Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996). Inkelas, Daver, Vogt, and Leonard (2007) suggested that first-generation students may rely on faculty or residence hall coordinators to provide these structured opportunities to integrate into the campus environment and make peer connections.

Besides facing the novelty of the college environment with less understanding of campus life, first-generation students are also less likely to be academically prepared for college (Choy, 2001; Richardson & Skinner, 1992; Riehl, 1994; Terenzini et al., 1996; Warburton, Bugarin, & Nuñez, 2001). Both the lack of familiarity with college and their perceptions of their college preparation may affect first-generation students’ self-confidence after they enroll. However, first-generation students’ self-confidence and self-efficacy, rather than objective measures of their academic preparation, were predictive of a smooth transition to college (Inkelas et al., 2007; Ramos-Sánchez, & Nichols, 2011). As Terenzini et al. (1994) noted, it may be particularly important for first-generation students to receive affirmation of their legitimacy as college students. This implies that once they believe in their self-worth as college students and have the right peer and academic supports, they are much more likely to achieve successful college outcomes.

Support Structures for First-Generation Students

Student Support Services (SSS), a federal TRIO program, was designed to increase college retention, increase two-year to four-year transfer rates, and foster an institutional climate supportive of success for eligible students, that is, students who are low-income and first-generation, or are students with disabilities. Though each institution can tailor the program to its specific needs, all SSS programs include academic advising, and many also include academic tutoring and supplemental instruction, mentoring, career and other counseling services, and services designed specifically for students with disabilities. A recent longitudinal evaluation of SSS programs found that receiving student support services was associated with key measures of college retention and completion (Chaney, 2010). Specific programs driving this success included home-based programs (in which multiple services for students are coordinated through one “home” office on campus), blended programs (which blend SSS services with other services on campus), peer tutoring, labs, workshops, and services for students with disabilities (Chaney, 2010). In general, this evaluation affirmed the value of the types of advisement and services offered through TRIO offices on college campuses, in which students receive a combination of targeted supports for their particular needs.

Tutoring and mentoring. Research has suggested that tutoring is an especially important learning support for students who do not feel ready for college and/or have gaps in their knowledge base when entering college. Studies have indicated that students using tutoring services earned higher grades, withdrew from courses less, and performed better when retaking a course (Colver & Fry, 2016; Vick, Robles-Piña, Martirosyan, & Kite, 2015). Moreover, first-generation students attempting to retake a course who received tutoring services received higher grades than those who did not participate in tutoring (Colver & Fry, 2016). Tutees perceived peer tutoring as less threatening than having an adult tutor; for first-generation students, who often question their legitimacy for college, this may be important for making them more willing to ask questions and receive needed support. In previous studies, peer tutoring lowered anxiety and increased participative learning and self-disclosure, among other motivational benefits (Greenwood, Carta, & Kamps 1990; Topping, 1996).

Mentoring also provides benefits to students with limited knowledge of the campus environment, such as first-generation students. Mentors can provide guidance around key academic decisions, such as choosing classes and instructors and finding necessary campus supports. There is evidence that peer mentoring provides positive outcomes for mentees, including better grades and more successfully completed courses (Leidenfrost, Strassnig, Schütz, Carbon, & Schabmann, 2014), as well as increased knowledge of resources on campus, ability to work through difficulties in college, and higher self-esteem (Zevallos & Washburn, 2014).

Additionally, faculty mentoring has led to positive outcomes for first-generation students, including higher GPAs, more credit hours completed, and a lower dropout rate (Campbell & Campbell, 1997). Adult mentoring has also been associated with more positive attitudes and higher motivation for involvement in one’s field (Eby, Allen, Evans, Ng, & DuBois, 2008). At a four-year college in Missouri, faculty research mentoring provided through a McNair Scholars program to first-generation, low-income students from their sophomore through their senior years increased retention rates, graduation rates, and graduate admission rates, and students attributed much of their preparation for graduate school to their mentors (Ishiyama, 2001). In sum, these studies provide evidence that both peer and faculty/staff mentors offer important benefits to students who need additional guidance in a higher education environment.

Early college experiences. Students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds experience a high degree of “summer melt” in the summer between high school and college. Estimates of summer melt range from 15% to 40% of students intending to matriculate to college, and the percentages are particularly high for students from low-SES backgrounds (Castleman & Page, 2014). Colleges and universities try to address this alarming rate of “meltdown” by providing early college experiences to students—most commonly at-risk or conditionally admitted students—during the summer before their first semester or during their first year of college. Some of these early college experiences include pre-college orientations, summer bridge programs (SBPs), and first-year seminars.

Summer bridge programs are generally geared toward increasing college readiness in order to ease the transition to college and thereby increase retention. Conley’s (2008) widely accepted definition of college readiness includes (a) cognitive skills such as problem solving or critical thinking; (b) key content areas such as math, writing, reading, or STEM; (c) academic behaviors for success, such as study skills and time management; and (d) “college knowledge” of the context of higher education and key student services. Most SBPs emphasize various components of this college-ready framework, but because of the wide-ranging activities that may be included, as well as the different populations SBPs serve, it is not surprising that the effects of SBPs on college retention have been mixed in prior research (see Sablan, 2014, for a summary). The most positive, direct effects on college outcomes in earlier studies were a successful transition to college (Kezar, 2000) as well as short-term effects of SBPs on math and writing course completion in the first year; however, there were no effects on longer term retention (Barnett et al., 2012; Cabrera, Miner, & Milem, 2013). Other positive effects of SBPs included higher academic skills and academic self-efficacy (Strayhorn 2011), as well as higher ratings of integration (Garcia, 1991). Caught in a cultural pull between their non-college peers and family, and their new college environment, first-generation students may need validation that they belong in that environment (Kezar, 2000; Terenzini et al., 1996). As such, increasing academic self-concept, college knowledge, and community building may be important outcomes of SBPs and help ease the transition to college for these students.

First-year programs, the most common of which is the first-year seminar, comprise another effort to enhance first-year retention and integration. First-year seminars have been shown to have a significant, positive effect on retention (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), increasing second-year retention between 7 and 13 percentage points in two controlled studies. First-year programs benefited all demographic groups, based on age, ethnicity, gender, at-risk status, and whether students lived on or off campus. Other additional benefits of first-year programs included students’ increased integration on campus, higher satisfaction with the college experience, and, perhaps most importantly, improved self-perception as learners (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006).


In 2016, St. Louis Graduates (STLG), a collaborative network focused on eliminating equity gaps in degree completion for low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color, convened a task force to (a) identify those higher education institutions that are more successful in supporting and graduating underrepresented students from the St. Louis, Missouri, region, and (b) determine the strategies that institutions are using to graduate underrepresented students with less debt. This task force was led by the vice president for education strategies for the St. Louis Regional Chamber and the director of scholarships and donor services for the St. Louis Community Foundation and comprised higher education academic and student affairs leaders, representatives from nonprofit organizations that promote college student success, and key community members. The STLG project director (the second author) and the St. Louis Graduates’ Higher Education Recognition Task Force (hereafter referred to as the STLG Task Force) engaged the first author at the Illinois Education Research Council to lead a research project to address these two questions, resulting in a research report, Degrees with Less Debt: Effective Higher Education Strategies for Underrepresented Student Populations (Holt, White, & Terrell, 2017). This research project used statistical methods to identify five exemplary four-year institutions in Missouri (from a larger sample of 20 Illinois and Missouri institutions) which were supporting underrepresented undergraduate students (i.e., first-generation students, underrepresented minority students, and low-income students) from the St. Louis region to graduate with less debt.

Using a ranking calculation based on the median student debt at graduation and six-year graduation rates compared to predicted graduation rates for similar institutions, Holt, White, and Terrell (2017) created a success formula that identified the most successful institutions for underrepresented student populations. Additionally, the STLG Task Force created thresholds for serving a moderate number of low-income students (i.e., at least 25% Pell students) and graduating a moderate number of students, (i.e., at least a 50% six-year graduation rate overall). Based on the success formula, the five highest ranking institutions identified as graduating underrepresented students with less debt, in alphabetical order, were: Maryville University, Missouri State University-Springfield (MSU), Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO), the University of Central Missouri (UCM), and Webster University. It is important to note that, across the five institutions in this study, the average percent of first-generation students was three percentage points higher than the 20-institution average (see Table 1).

Table 1

Description of Institutional Context and Outcomes

Institutional Context



Percent of Black and Hispanic Studentsa

Percent of First-Generation Studentsb

Percent of Pell Recipientsa

Graduation Ratesa

Student Loan Debt at Graduationb

Maryville University






Missouri State University






Southeast Missouri State University






University of Central Missouri






Webster University






5-Institution Mean






20-Institution Mean (Min, Max)

(6, 85)

(10, 50)

(6, 91)

(9, 95)

$23,360 ($19,566, $27,869)

Note. Reproduced with permission from Holt et al. (2017, p. 8).

aSource: IPEDS, fall 2013 and fall 2014 average total enrollment of Black students and Hispanic students; fall 2013 and fall 2014 average percent Pell enrolled; AY14 and AY15 average 6-year graduation rates.

bSource: College Scorecard, average of 2012 and 2013 student debt at graduation; fall 2012 and fall 2013 average first-generation enrollment.

In the second phase of the study, administrators and students from each of the five identified institutions were interviewed, with the goal of determining successful practices and strategies they employed to help underrepresented students graduate in six years or less with lower debt. In fall 2016, between three and five administrators across disciplines who were responsible for programs for the population of interest were interviewed at each institution; in addition, a focus group of underrepresented students was held at each site. All interviews were semi-structured, with initial questions prepared in advance and follow-up questions developed over the course of the interview.

Employing a grounded-theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), five themes emerged around strategies and practices these institutions employed and how they employed them to achieve higher graduation rates with less student debt. Two of the five themes reflected the overall organizational culture of the university: university leadership and a coordinated and caring community. The other three themes reflected key strategies of student support: flexible and sufficient financial aid, early college experiences, and just-in-time academic supports (Holt et al., 2017).

While Holt et al.’s (2017) study identified effective supports for all underrepresented students, in the current study we focused on a select group of practices that research suggests are particularly beneficial to first-generation students. We limited our analysis to non-financial aid practices related to three of the themes in the original report—a coordinated and caring community, early college experiences, and just-in-time academic supports—to explore the academic and advising supports that are critical components of comprehensive services for first-generation students. We are mindful that financial aid is also a critical support for first-generation students; however, this has already been covered extensively in the literature (Dynarski & Scott-Clayton, 2013; Goldrick-Rab, Kelchen, Harris, & Benson, 2016) and in our original report (Holt et al., 2017).


Building a Caring and Coordinated Community of Support

In our research, several subthemes emerged within this area, including the importance of creating a sense of “family” for first-generation students on campus through faculty and peer relationships. Missouri State University created a special section of its first-year General Education Program (GEP) seminar after analysis of its own data found that the retention rate for first-generation students was 10% lower than for undergraduates overall. As previously noted, first-year college experiences considerably increase retention, as well as students’ campus integration, self-perception as learners, and college satisfaction (Goodman & Pascarella, 2006; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).

At MSU, sections of freshman seminar were designated for first-generation students, creating a learning community of similar students who, through a strengths-based approach, built self-awareness and explored their unique assets and needs. Tinto (1998) recommended the establishment of learning communities, which blend social and academic engagement, to increase college retention and success, and these communities have been used successfully with first-generation students to increase integration and build self-awareness of their potential (Conefrey, 2018; Inkelas et al., 2007; Suder Foundation, 2017; Thayer, 2000). Faculty leading these sections, many of whom were first-generation themselves, received intensive training on how to best support first-generation students. One key piece is that the faculty self-identified as first generation to the students and thus served as role models for first-generation students. As one MSU student commented:

“My first year, I was a ‘first generation’ and an ‘undecided’ student. I was in a special section that was a small amount of students. Connection with the teacher was encouraged, and she helped me in the path to deciding a major. She helped me work through those emotions you have initially, of a ‘lack of direction,’ when you don’t have a family experience you can turn back to, and you don’t have an inner direction yet.” (Holt et al., 2017, p. 18)

About 30 students comprised each section of the seminar, with the number of first-generation sections increasing annually. Missouri State University data showed that retention rates for students who participated in these special GEP sections increased to about 79% (as of the 2015-2016 academic year), such that these students reached higher retention rates than other GEP sections. Further, a group of students from one of the first-generation GEP sections created an on-campus group called “MSU: I’m First.” In this group, students supported one another by connecting each other to scholarship resources, providing essay writing assistance, and discussing how to best share their college experiences with friends and family at home, thus building academic and social integration on campus for first-generation students and expanding their learning community and support network.

At SEMO, integration of the Academic Support Center with TRIO Student Support Services ensured that first-generation students had a “home base” on campus, a one-stop-shop for advice and connection to resources, including academic support, FAFSA assistance, financial literacy, and college success programs. This First-Generation Targeted Support Initiative provided tailored student support based on a student’s GPA and academic performance, so students received the help they needed, rather than a set package of services. Depending on GPA, students met with an advisor on a weekly, bi-weekly, or less frequent basis, thereby establishing an ongoing relationship with an advisor in the Academic Support Center.

At UCM, the customization of support services to each student was undergirded by a data dashboard shared across departments that included both academic and behavioral indicators highlighting students who may have needed extra assistance. The dashboard allowed staff and faculty to see who was working with a student to ensure coordinated support rather than confusing and off-putting duplication of efforts. Demographic data, including first-generation status, were part of the dashboard, allowing staff and faculty working with students to direct students to relevant services.

Cross-silo use of data to support students on campus was considered both daunting and essential by the institutional representatives interviewed in the Holt et al. (2017) study. As a result, several Missouri institutions, in an effort to better understand the UCM model, chose to participate in a series of professional learning workshops in which institutions shared what worked in supporting underrepresented students (described later in this article).

Early College Experiences

As noted previously, SBPs and first-year programs can reduce “summer melt” and smooth the academic transition for first-generation students, leading to several positive outcomes, including more college knowledge, higher academic self-efficacy, better campus integration, and, in some cases, significantly increased retention rates. Webster University’s Transitions and Academic Prep (TAP) program was one such SBP designed to help conditionally admitted students adjust to campus life. Through TAP, students earned two credits at no cost while they lived on campus and participated in a 10-day program centering on writing and study skills, time management, and financial literacy. On average, 51% of TAP students were first-generation, and, notably, retention rates reached levels higher than those of the student population overall (85% vs. 79%) as of fall 2016. Transition and Academic Prep support extended through the first semester, and Webster University, at the time of Holt et al.’s (2017) study, was considering extending it further to provide students ongoing support because of its success. One Webster University student noted:

“I did the whole summer program and I really, really liked it….I’m a bio major, and we all know biology is hard. I got a chance to meet the professors first in the summer and talk to them about it was going to be, what should I expect in the classes, so that was really nice.” (Holt et al., 2017, p. 22).

Some orientation programs were tailored to first-generation and low-income students. For instance, in SEMO’s two-day Academic Support Center Transition Camp, students connected to important college resources and learned about college expectations. Focus-group students reported that this aided their successful transition, especially learning about college expectations and guidelines.

Tutoring and Mentoring

As previous research has indicated, both tutoring and mentoring, particularly when engaging peers, can be effective tools for increasing academic outcomes, such as college grades and credits completed (Colver & Fry, 2016; Leidenfrost et al., 2014; Vick et al., 2015) and college retention and completion (Chaney, 2010), as well as improving motivation, self-esteem, and other non-cognitive outcomes (Greenwood et al., 1990; Topping, 1996; Zevallos & Washburn, 2014).

Peer tutoring and mentoring programs were prominent at the five universities that ranked highest based on Holt et al.’s (2017) success formula. First-generation students praised the availability of free tutoring services in most any subject, on short notice, and indicated this was essential to their college success. At Maryville University, sophomore students mentored freshmen in the Multicultural Scholars program, which sought to create inclusive leaders. Many peer mentors continued mentoring after the sophomore year, although it was not required. Retention rates for students in the program ranged from 83% to 100% between 2010 and 2016, and the program received an Innovative Program Award in 2016-2017 (Holt et al., 2017).

Important to first-generation students was the availability of assistance as needed, which may not have been during traditional office hours. Students at UCM commented on the importance of residence-hall-based academic resource coaches who stayed in touch with students and connected them to resources as needed. Another example of 24/7 assistance was a relatively new approach at Maryville University that used life coaches who provided students with personalized advisement based on data about students’ learning styles and strengths. These around-the-clock models went beyond traditional advising to provide social and emotional support and a sense of “family” for first-generation students.

Faculty and staff also served as effective mentors at the five highest ranked institutions (Holt et al., 2017). The Webster University TAP program engaged faculty in providing early college support to provisionally admitted students. At SEMO, the Academic Support Center’s Academic Mentoring Program (AMP) connected students with faculty in their field of study who then served as their mentors. Interestingly, the students mentored through the AMP program were employed for 12 hours per week by their faculty mentors, with the salary paid jointly by the Educational Access Program at SEMO and the faculty member’s department. Students who participated in AMP had a five-year graduation rate of 95%. As one SEMO student stated,

“It gets you a job on campus with your mentor as well as just a mentor that you can go and talk to. I know I wore my mentor out with advice about, not just academics, but everything in life.” (Holt et al., 2017, p. 46)


The analysis and observation of the strategies that were successful at these five institutions were based on interviews with a limited number of administrators and students, and the students were solicited by university personnel, potentially narrowing the subject pool and their viewpoints. However, student participants were all first-generation minority students and/or low-income students, and interviews reached saturation on the major themes.

Additionally, at-risk students were often involved in several student support services, making it difficult to determine the effects of one particular practice. In this study, we focused on identifying successful institutions, then investigated the practices that administrators and students identified as contributors to the institutional outcomes. This approach helped us target practices that specifically benefited our populations of interest and was not intended to represent all of the academic and student services programs at an institution.

First-generation status has considerable overlap with low-income and minority students (Redford & Mulvaney Hoyer, 2017), who have their own prior history and knowledge bases, as well as challenges they bring to the higher education environment. It is unclear whether first-generation practices may need to be different for different minority groups or those who are low-income as well.

Our institution interview sample was limited to those institutions previously named that were the five highest ranked in supporting underrepresented students according to Holt et al. (2017). Of these five, three were public universities and two were nonprofit universities; none of the institutions was for-profit, and therefore the findings cannot be generalized to for-profit colleges or universities.

Finally, though this article focused intentionally on non-financial policies and practices, we recognize that for many low-income first-generation students, college affordability is a determining factor, if not the driving factor, in college persistence. Given the substantial research on financial factors of success, we chose to emphasize non-financial factors in this study; however, this approach may minimize the importance of financial support for a large number of first-generation students.

Implications for Policy and Practice

The practices employed by the Missouri institutions noted here are models that can be replicated on other campuses. That is the thinking behind the creation of the Student Success Learning Institute (SSLI), which seeks to foster replication of effective institutional practice through shared insight and lessons learned. Launched in February 2018, the SSLI has a secondary goal of forming a peer network of professionals who provide student support services on campuses across Missouri, opening communication among those who support a student population that may transfer from one institution to another and who could benefit from coordinated support. The SSLI, which exists to inform institutional practice, is managed by an external community organization, St. Louis Graduates, and seeks to elevate and advance strategies that emerged in the Holt et al. (2017) report to a network of local higher education institutions, with the goal of eliminating equity gaps. Such community organizations can play a critical role as neutral brokers in bringing together higher education leaders, policymakers, business leader, and community leaders in support of students.

In addition to the SSLI, Missouri State University has launched a biennial First-Generation Students Conference bringing together higher education leaders from campuses across the state to specifically discuss opportunities for increasing support for first-generation students. One of the topics at the inaugural conference in 2017 focused on the higher transfer rates among first-generation students. As Radunzel (2018) noted, first-generation students attending a four-year institution were more likely than their non-first-generation peers to drop out or transfer to another institution in year two. These first-generation students were 16% more likely to reverse transfer to a two-year institution than students whose parents had earned a bachelor’s degree, despite a stated interest in earning a bachelor’s degree. In addition, first-generation students enrolling at a two-year institution had a decreased likelihood of vertically transferring to a four-year institution. These findings reinforce the importance of proactive advising for first-generation students to guide their academic and school engagement decision making so they continue to persist, and suggest that cross-institutional articulation agreements that support transfer students would increase the likelihood of these students persisting toward completion. Further, state policies like Missouri’s new Core 42 initiative, which establishes a common core transfer curriculum and aligned course numbers across public institutions, should be effective in assisting first-generation students in persisting even if they transfer.

A critical issue related to first-generation support services and the kinds of practices discussed in Holt et al. (2017) is the availability of financial resources to implement these services and practices, coupled with institutional leadership committed to underrepresented student success. Since the publication of Holt et al. some of the highlighted programs have been discontinued. Notably, the academic resource coaches in the residence halls at UCM, lauded in Holt et al. and celebrated at the Student Success Learning Institute in February 2018, are no longer part of the student support mix due in large part to financial constraints stemming from state budget cuts to higher education. Public institutions across the United States face similar challenges as state budgets increasingly struggle to fund higher education through general revenue sources. In the case of UCM, budget cuts were the impetus for innovative thinking, and students now receive proactive advising tied to their majors. However, year-after-year cuts to higher education budgets in Missouri and other states are eroding the ability of institutions to provide the very supports demonstrated effective for underrepresented students. This highlights the importance of institutional commitment to student success and the need to foster a campus-wide mindset of prioritizing student supports, particularly by those who lead institutional financial decision making and fund development.

The commitment of institutional leadership is another essential component of underrepresented student success noted in Holt et al. (2017). University presidents set the direction of their campuses, and those who engage with students formally and informally contribute to an inclusive campus culture. Students in the Holt et al. focus groups were generally very aware and proud of their presidents and campus leaders and their ability to relate to the students. Institutional leaders also set institutional policy, including directing financial aid dollars to prioritize need-based aid or multicultural scholarships that support underrepresented students, although, as noted here, the availability of resources varies between public and private institutions.

Finally, while Holt et al. (2017) included the perspectives of students supported through the practices identified, more remains to be done to bridge the gap between student-informed programs and student-led policy change. As first-generation students acclimate to college life and join initiatives like “MSU: I’m First,” there is an opportunity for institutions to engage them in shaping the programs and policies designed for students like them. Coalitions such as the Active Advocacy Coalition, a network of college students across Missouri advocating for greater college affordability and expanded access for underrepresented students, are informing state policy through student-led research on equity in the awarding of state-funded financial aid programs (Addo, 2016).

Implications for Scholarship

As noted by previous researchers, there is abundant information about first-generation students from national studies that provide outcome data; however, smaller scale studies are needed to understand and describe the strategies and practices that can move the needle on retention and completion for first-generation students (Pike & Kuh, 2005). This study highlights practices aligned with current theories of college success models for first-generation students and provides examples of how these practices were employed successfully at some Missouri campuses. Yet, this nascent body of research on success strategies and practices for first-generation students needs further study. Radunzel (2018) showed some of the impacts of first-generation student characteristics (e.g., academic self-concept, on- or off-campus residence; educational aspirations, college readiness) on dropout or transfer, but further study is warranted to understand implications of the institutional environment (e.g., public, nonprofit private, or for-profit private; urban or rural) and type of support service (e.g., home-based programs, tutoring and mentoring, SBPs, and first-year programming). The work of Holt et al. (2017) suggests the importance of proactive advising, summer bridge programs, and early alerts, but further research is warranted to understand how to provide the most effective support services for all first-generation college students.

More experimental and quasi-experimental studies are needed to further test and provide credible evidence of the effectiveness of existing practices for supporting first-generation students. In instances in which these methods have been used, much value has been added to the field. In one notable example, MDRC’s evaluation of the CUNY system’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs using randomized controlled trials provided strong evidence that a combination of support services helped to double community college graduation rates, subsequently leading to the expansion of this multi-faceted program (Scrivener et al., 2015).

The 2018 Strada-Gallup Survey highlighted the importance of mentor-mentee relationships for college students, particularly with faculty, but pointed out that only a quarter of all college graduates report having had such a mentor on campus. Further, first-generation college students are five percentage points less likely to have a faculty member as a mentor. We speculate that students seek mentors with whom they share commonalities, indicating the importance of universities hiring faculty and student support staff who have first-hand experiences that reflect the students attending the institution; however, further scholarship is needed on establishing successful mentoring relationships for first-generation students.


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Janet K. Holt, PhD is Emeritus Professor, Educational Leadership, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE). Holt’s most recent appointment was Executive Director of the Illinois Education Research Council (IERC) and Professor of Educational Leadership at SIUE. Holt has 23 years of experience in higher education including education policy, having served as the Illinois P-20 Council Coordinator and on numerous state-level education policy committees; and education research, with expertise in educational equity based on gender, minority status, and socio-economic status, as well as methodological expertise in educational evaluation and advanced quantitative methods.

Laura Winter, MPPA is Project Director of St. Louis Graduates, a collaborative network of education, business, non-profit organizations and philanthropy committed to eliminating equity gaps in postsecondary education. Ms. Winter is a graduate of Boston College with a bachelor’s degree in English and University of Missouri-St. Louis with a master’s degree in public policy administration. She is a graduate of the program for state and local government officials at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.