Study examines challenges for first-generation students

Here’s what one first-generation college student told Julia Sorcinelli, a 2011 IU Master of Public Affairs graduate who recently conducted a year-long study of the challenges facing students who are trying to be the first in their families to earn a university degree:

“It’s hard because I’m so stressed. I know my mom and dad will always be there for me, but they don’t understand this. I can’t talk to my family because I’m literally the first generation. Nobody has attended college so they really don’t know what to expect. What stresses me out is that my family expects me to do well. They expect me to succeed.”

IU Executive Vice President John Applegate and VISTA Fellow Julia Sorcinelli spoke recently to the IU Board of Trustees about first-generation college students.

Sorcinelli conducted the study in support of IU’s Blueprint for Student Attainment, an initiative targeted to regional campuses, which serve many first-generation students. She is a VISTA Fellow through the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, working for the IU Office of the Executive Vice President for University Regional Affairs, Planning and Policy.

She analyzed data about first-generation college students and interviewed more than 20 such students along with administrators and staff. She said first-generation students often struggle with family expectations and an unfamiliar college culture – factors that, along with financial strain, help explain national figures that show they are unlikely to earn a degree within six years of enrolling.

Sorcinelli said IU campuses can help by:

  • Fostering a sense of pride in being a first-generation student
  • Connecting students and their families to programs and services
  • Developing strategies to improve retention and graduation rates
  • Making campus programs responsive to diverse students
  • Introducing students to faculty, staff and administrators who were first-generation students

The study dovetails with an effort by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education to boost success rates for first-generation students. The commission is sponsoring community conversations on the topic and recently hosted a screening of “First Generation,” a documentary film that follows four students who attempt to break the cycle of family poverty by succeeding in college.

“We hope to spark a statewide conversation that’s centered on the needs of students and focused on removing barriers to college completion,” said Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers. “Many Hoosiers struggle on their path to a college degree, and there is a direct link between the success of our first-generation students and the future prosperity of our state.”

For more on Sorcinelli and her study, see the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs website.