More First-Gen. College Students Attribute Success to Parents

    For A.S. President and first-generation college student Marco Murillo, attending a four-year university was not just a goal, but a mission – even if he had to figure out the admissions process on his own.

    “”I didn’t get that advance notice [about] what to expect from a four-year university,”” Murillo said. “”I never had anybody to go home to and ask for help regarding any situation. That was difficult and something I had to learn on my own.””

    Murillo’s story is one shared by a large percentage of first-generation college students, according to a recent collaborative study from UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program and the Higher Education Research Institute.

    In 1971, 38.5 percent of full-time college freshmen were first-generation students, but the figure has steadily declined over the years – falling to 15.9 percent in 2005, an all-time low as recorded by CIRP.

    “”Looking at first-generation college students in this way is very important because there is limited research on this critical population of students as they are entering college, including what kinds of motivations and expectations they have,”” said study leader Victor Saenz, a visiting assistant professor of education at UCLA.

    Over a 34-year period, researchers analyzed subjects’ self-reported reasons for college attendance, finding that parental encouragement, preparation for graduate school and potential financial and career growth were all cited as very important to first-generation college-goers.

    Parental support was listed as a particularly important influence for these first-time students, with 47 percent naming it a key factor in their decision to attend college. In contrast, only 43 percent of non-first-generation students made a similar claim. The finding negates a previously held notion that parents who did not attend college are a liability to their children’s success rate, Saenz said.

    “”Many feel that first-generation students are at a disadvantage of sorts, because they have fewer experiences to draw from in terms of support, information, guidance and networking,”” he said. “”Non-first-generation students, by definition, have family that has had some experience with going to college. So, the idea that parents of first-generation students are ‘handicaps’ to them stems from this gap in access to info, resources, social networks, etc. – access that their peers may already have.””

    Though Murillo’s parents could not help him directly with his schoolwork, he said they provided him with helpful emotional support in preparation for a college career.

    “”Both my parents didn’t have a chance to attend either a high school or a university, so they want my brother and me to be able to get an education,”” he said. “”My mom always put school first for me.””

    Like Murillo, fellow first-generation student and John Muir College junior Alex Abejar credits his parents’ assistance as a crucial part of his college experience.

    “”My parents gave me the most support by helping me out in any way they could, such as getting me to college interviews, going to visit college campuses and especially paying for application fees,”” Abejar said. “”To them, education has no price.””

    Saenz said that the rising level of parental support is encouraging for students who do not have a family history of pursuing higher education.

    “”This shows that their parents are an asset to them as opposed to being a detriment to their college access,”” he said.

    However, Abejar cautioned against considering first-generation students radically different from their peers, saying that many of the difficulties associated with being first in the family are also applicable to others entering college for the first time.

    “”I didn’t really feel that I was at a disadvantage compared to non-first-generation students,”” he said. “”For the most part, I felt that everybody was on common ground. We’re all in college and we’re all not sure of what’s going on.””

    Saenz agreed that first-generation students and their friends often have very similar goals and expectations, and that the report’s findings largely mirror those expected of students whose parents went to college.

    Overall, Saenz said he hopes that the study’s findings can assist college leaders in planning outreach and support for students who do not have any university experience in the family.

    “”I think an ever more important utility of this report is the usefulness it can offer to practitioners and administrators in higher education, so they can better understand and serve the evolving needs of this critical population of entering college students,”” he said.

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