Enrolling and Retaining First-Generation Students: 3 Things You Need to Know

First Generation Students: Image of a woman reading at an academic library

As demand for college education rises among lower-income families amid a troubled economy, and as the pressure mounts on completion rates, more institutions are beginning to assess their strategies for recruiting and retaining first-gen students.

We’ve addressed the issue before in Higher Ed Impact, offering tips from various experts in enrollment management. This week, we wanted to pull together several disparate research findings over the past several years that, when taken together, tell a story of where some institutions may be missing opportunities to enroll, prepare, and support first-generation students more effectively.

Here are three findings to consider when developing a holistic strategy for enrolling and serving lower-income, first-generation students:

  • Boosting yield: Many admitted first-generation students don’t enroll because they don’t believe they will qualify for financial aid.
  • Identifying at-risk students accurately: Cognitive variables such as standardized test scores and GPA are not enough, in of themselves, to predict which students will thrive and persist; there are non-cognitive variables that you can assess to complete the picture.
  • Defining under-preparedness: Low-income first-generation students face more than just a “curriculum gap”; there are also cultural barriers that institutions can help address.

Let’s take a closer look.

1. Many First-Gen Admits Don’t Enroll Because They Don’t Believe They’ll Qualify for Financial Aid

When asked why first-generation admits opt not to enroll, Thom Golden, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University, cites several barriers:

  • Concerns over affordability
  • Lack of clarity about financial aid (how it’s applied for and when; what the award amount means, etc.)
  • Lack of clarity around aid eligibility

The American Council of Education has released several studies indicating that over 1.8 million low-income and middle-income families who would have qualified for college aid failed to apply. Golden notes that the issue is particularly pronounced in first-generation college families. “We often assume that if a student needs aid, they’ll apply, but this isn’t necessarily the case,” he warns. Golden cites focus group findings that revealed two reasons why many first-generation students did not apply for financial aid:

  • Some didn’t believe they would qualify
  • Some believed that the deadlines had passed

“If your school doesn’t have strong preferential deadlines for aid,” Golden advises, “make sure admits know they may be eligible and can still apply. And encourage them to apply even if they aren’t sure they will qualify. In basketball, they say that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Communicate that to your admits.”

“The competition is not as numerous as it often is with traditional students. The data shows that first-generation students are more likely to apply to just one to three colleges. That means that a little bit of personal attention to your admits can go a long way.”
Thom Golden, Vanderbilt U

Golden suggests these four practices to help you overcome the obstacles to improving first-generation yield:

  • Connect with the parents — especially Mom
  • Improve and simplify your financial aid communications
  • Train staff in both admissions and financial aid for the conversation about affordability
  • Think creatively about low-cost, high-return campus visits

2. Cognitive Variables (SAT/GPA) Are Not Enough to Predict Which Students Are Best Prepared

While more institutions are investing in identifying and intervening with at-risk students, resources for doing so are often scarce. Neither defining all incoming lower-income, first-generation students as “at risk” nor relying on academic data such as standardized test scores and high school GPA is sufficient in lending you the type of focus and rigor needed to accurately identify specific, at-risk students to which you can devote scarce resources.

“Scores and high school GPA only account for about 20 percent of the variability we see in student outcomes. Some students with a respectable GPA and high scores underperform academically in college and drop out, while other students who appear academically under-prepared then proceed to perform highly. This means that some of the students you are losing are in good academic standing. They don’t appear to be “at-risk students.” To ensure that programming to improve student success is effective, we need better predictors of student success.”
Paul Gore, University of Utah

Paul Gore serves as the student success special projects coordinator at the University of Utah in addition to his roles as professor, training director for graduate counseling programs, and director of institutional research. Gore has also served as the director of the Career Transitions Research Department at ACT in Iowa City.

Citing a 2004 meta-analysis of the research on non-cognitive variables, Gore emphasizes the need to adopt assessments of non-cognitive skills in order to:

  • Identify those students who enter your institution with an average GPA and average test scores, but who are nevertheless likely to be at risk.
  • Identify those first-generation, academically under-prepared students who did not perform as well on the standardized test, but who are engaged, resilient, confident, driven to succeed, and who have the psychological constitution to thrive under stress.
  • Develop, based on this information, more targeted and effective student services programming to support students’ academic success and persistence.

For an overview of the research and context behind this approach as well as a list of available non-cognitive assessment tools, read our article “Predicting Student Success: When SAT and GPA are Not Enough.”

3. First-Gen Students May Face More than Just a Curriculum Gap

The curriculum gap for lower-income students is well-documented; for example, you may have students with a high GPA who excelled at a high school that lacked mathematics courses beyond algebra. According to a 2006 US Department of Education study, The Toolbox Revisited, only 45 percent of Hispanic students attend a high school that offers calculus, and only 59 percent of white students do. Despite a high GPA, admitted students who seek a degree in the STEM disciplines may face significant hurdles due to academic under-preparedness.

But academics is not the only way in which lower-income, first-generation students may arrive under-prepared. Thom Golden of Vanderbilt University draws attention to a subtler and more frequently ignored issue — that of “cultural capital.” Students who have no family history of higher education and who attended high schools serving primarily lower-income populations may be unaware of expectations around class participation and how to navigate an academic environment.

Sociologist Annette Lareau’s research on parenting styles in Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (2000) and Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (2003) revealed that:

  • Many low-income children are not taught the same skills of self-advocacy that higher-income children are taught
  • Low-income parents are likely to teach their children to be more deferential toward teachers and toward authority generally

In the college classroom, however, students are expected and even encouraged to dialogue with and challenge their instructors — it is considered part of the learning experience. “There are so many cultural things we take for granted,” Golden cautions, “how to sit up front in a class, how to take good notes, how to interact with faculty. These little things, these tips of the trade, may be second nature to a parent who went to college, but completely foreign to students whose parents did not attend, and who lack mentors who can advise them on how to build a good working relationship with a professor, how to study at college, what to expect.” Minus this facility with navigating the classroom and the campus, at-risk students can have a more difficult time securing the assistance and the social learning opportunities that would help them succeed.

Golden suggests integrating material into your summer program, orientation, or first-year seminar that focuses on building cultural competency and study skills. A session like this should include:

  • Interaction with faculty during the program (and opportunities to role-play and practice the type of interactions that are encouraged in the college environment)
  • Interaction with students of a similar socioeconomic background — develop a peer cohort


George Mason University’s Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) provides a good example of this approach. STEP is a for-credit summer program with a mentorship approach. First-generation and historically under-represented students meet weekly, are paired with advisers, and form a strong college-bound student cohort as they take transitional courses and practice the study skills, tools, and resources they will need when they enroll full-time for their freshman year. STEP participants are now showing a higher GPA than their counterparts who did not take the program.


In this report from Academic Impressions, we interviewed academic leaders at two-year and four-year institutions that offer effective alternative approaches to traditional developmental education. These institutions have:

  • Adopted more informed approaches to placement of students in gateway courses
  • Replaced non-credit “remedial education” with credit-bearing courses
  • Replaced prerequisite courses with corequisite workshops or other academic support
  • Accelerated the integration of academically underprepared students into the regular curriculum

Through these efforts, they have seen significant gains in retention and completion rates. Read the report to learn more.