A Leap of Faith: Documenting the First-Generation Undergraduate Experience

Who are first-generation students?

1G Chart

Roughly one-third of the undergraduates at two- and four-year institutions are first-generation college students. At four-year institutions, the figure is closer to 20%.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Aid Study (NPSAS), 2012.

The term first-generation is used to describe many different groups, and as a result, exact definitions vary by institution. Duke University defines first-generation students as students whose parents have not earned a bachelor’s degree. These students may be U.S. citizens or hold foreign citizenship, and are not necessarily first-generation Americans, i.e. among the first generation in their family to be born on U.S. soil. Of the 7.3 million undergraduates attending four-year public and private colleges and universities in the United States, about 20 percent are first-generation students.1 At Duke, around 10% of undergraduates are first-generation students.2

First-generation students often identify across socioeconomic and racial identifications. 50 percent of all first-generation college students in the U.S. are considered low-income, and first-generation students are also more likely to be a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.2

1G Completion 6 Years

Nearly 60% of first-generation college students do not complete a degree or credential in six years.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Longitudinal Study, 2004-2009.

First-generation students experience many unique struggles applying to college and after enrolling as full-time undergraduates. They tend to have limited knowledge about researching, applying to, and paying for college‚Äč, and may lack adequate support from guidance couneslors and family members who may have never applied to colleges themsevles. Some first-generation students have parents who support their plans for higher education, while others are under family pressure to enter the workforce right after high school. Often, these students don't know what their options are regarding higher education, and because many first-generation students are dependent on financial aid, they are less likely to enroll in four-year institutions due to perceptions of high cost of attendance and/or inadequate financial support. Those that do enroll often feel out-of-place on college campuses and may struggle to adjust to campus life. Shame, guilt and inadequacy are just a few feelings that first-generation college students commonly struggle with, and they are less likely to ask for help than students with at least one degree-earning parent.3

1G Race Stats

First-generation students are disproportionately Hispanic and African-American.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), 2012.

The push towards diversity in American higher education in the latter half of the 20th century played a major role in spreading awareness of the unique social, psychological, and economic challenges faced by first-generation undergraduate students. Institutions saw a need for greater racial diversity and began instituting affirmative action programs to meet this goal. The push for racial diversity brought into question the issue of class differences, and universities noticed that there was not much socioeconomic diversity in its undergraduate population. Students whose parents had not earned a bachelor's degree were more likely to come from lower-income backgrounds, and schools began to recruit those students as a result. However, attrition rates revealed that first-generation students were not succeeding at four-year institutions at the same rate as non-first-generation students.

Universities then began inquiring from first-generation students themselves what challenges they faced on campus, and began establishing specific initiatives for first-generation students such as summer orientation programs that aimed to ease the transition into college. ‚ÄčThese programs continue to play a vital role in helping first-generation students understand the financial, academic and social aspects of college, but first-generation students often lack adequate support while enrolled as undergraduates. An existing support network for the duration of the undergraduate years is perhaps even more crucial for the success of first-generation students in attaining a bachelor's degree.

At Duke, the first-generation experience is not a universal one. The experiences of each first-generation student brings new insight into what it means to be a first-generation student, and together, form a collective narrative that touches upon many aspects of the University structure, including administrative policy, recruitment, and financial and social support.


1. Pappano, Laura. “First-Generation Students Unite.” The New York Times, April 8, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/education/edlife/first-generation-students-unite.html.

2. “Duke Creates New Scholarship for First-Generation Students.” The Chronicle. Accessed June 28, 2016. http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2015/11/breaking-duke-creates-new-scholarship-for-first-generation-students.

3. “First-Generation College Students Are Not Succeeding in College, and Money Isn’t the Problem.” Washington Post. Accessed June 23, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/20/first-generation-college-students-are-not-succeeding-in-college-and-money-isnt-the-problem/.

4. Boyington, Briana. “Prepare for College as a First-Generation Student.” US News & World Report, April 20, 2015. http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2015/04/20/prepare-for-college-as-a-first-generation-student.