Colleges differ in ‘first-generation’ definitions
Dartmouth’s definition of a first-generation student — one for whom neither parent graduated from a four-year college — is among the most inclusive metrics used by colleges and other institutions.
Although some federal reports, state laws and private scholarships use the term to refer to students whose parents received no education after high school, colleges seeking to identify students who could benefit from additional resources often use a more inclusive definition, said Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program.
Though there is no single definition of first-generation status, Fishman said, parents’ educational attainment can influence a student’s risk of dropping out.
The question of how to identify first-generation students gained visibility with a Oct. 9 article by Beckie Supiano in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Institutions that keep statistics have shifted away from simply counting those whose parents enrolled in college, Supiano reported.
Dean of admissions and financial aid Maria Laskaris said that when deciding how to identify students first-generation status, the College arrived at its definition by considering if parents had a four-year college experience similar to that of a current Dartmouth student.
When Dartmouth admissions officers consider degrees from non-American universities, if it is clear that a parent’s degrees comes from a four-year university or professional school, the officer does not consider that student to be first-generation, Laskaris said.
At some institutions, if a student’s parents attended college at all, he or she is disqualified from first-generation status. Princeton University defines a first-generation college student as the first person or generation in one’s nuclear family to pursue a bachelor’s degree, according to its website.
Others — including Brown University, Cornell University, Harvard University and Yale University — consider students first-generation if neither parent graduated with a bachelor’s degree, according to information provided by their admissions offices.
Many institutions struggle to find the best and most useful definition, First-Year Student Enrichment Program director Jay Davis said, adding that he believed Dartmouth’s is broad enough to include everyone who could possibly qualify.
“That is one of the more inclusive of the definitions because it includes parents who have completed one or two years of college but did not finish and parents who have completed a community college degree,” he said.
First-generation student enrollment at the College has hovered between 10 and 11 percent for the past four classes, Laskaris said.
The Class of 2018 contains the largest percentage of first-generation students in Dartmouth’s history, the College reported in May. Among those admitted to the Class of 2018, 12.4 percent were considered to be first-generation college students.
Tracking first-generation status is important, Davis said, because a degree from a four-year college or institution comes with a set of societal advantages.
“There are particular challenges that students who are the first in their families to attend college face,” Davis said. “First-generation often means low-income families as well, but not always.”
Writing in response to Supiano’s article, University of Southern California graduate student Desiree Ross pointed to a dearth of support or guidance for students who are among the first in their families to attend college. This lack of resources, she wrote, is a more important question than the definition of “first generation.”
Davis said Dartmouth has taken steps in recent years to not only identify first-generation students, but provide them with support when they matriculate.
“It’s one thing to bring students here,” he said. “It’s another thing to say we’re going to help you thrive in whichever way you want to go when you get here.”
Of Dartmouth’s first-generation students, between 30 and 35 are invited to participate in FYSEP, which was founded in 2009 and provides academic support, social programming and one-on-one peer mentoring, according to the program’s website.
With more students entering higher education than ever before in the past 20 years, Fishman said, colleges have attempted to target their resources so that most students graduate.
If an institution wants to use the broadest qualifiers — usually for the sake of determining participants for a program, choosing recipients of a scholarship or targeting resources toward students who often struggle through college — then it would probably use the standard of having parents that have never graduated from any post-secondary education institution, Fishman said.
Michele Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer and founder and CEO of Hernandez College Consulting, said that although being a first-generation student wasn’t officially tracked as a data point, admissions teams consider it when holistically reading an applicant’s profile.
When Hernandez was an admissions officer, she said, the admissions office used a “North Country” designation to flag students from non-college backgrounds from Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Although it wasn’t something the admissions office reported, they tracked students internally and sometimes granted their applications an extra read, she said.
Admissions officers consider everyone’s test scores and grades in context, she said.
“Dartmouth has always tried to be compassionate and give students a break,” she said. “Admissions officers have always read people differently.”
Admissions representatives from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania did not respond to requests for comment by press time.