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How can we support first-in-family students to succeed in higher education?

  • 13 September 2023
  • By Maddy Godin
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Maddy Godin, researcher at the Russell Group. It is based on research for a Masters dissertation entitled ‘Unlocking the “Inside Scoop”‘.

For thousands of young people each year, the decision to attend university is not obvious. Instead, it poses a set of challenges that these students must face. Financial concerns, informational constraints, and a lack of preparation or support may impact or disadvantage first-generation students – those with parents who did not pursue post-secondary education – during their application and student journeys.

A previous report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, First-in-Family Students, noted that, in the UK, two-thirds of young graduates are the first in their family to attend a higher education university. While there have been improvements in educational achievement, this tells us for a sizeable cohort of students in the UK, there is little or no family tradition of supporting students through university, and few expectations of the unfamiliar territory of higher education.[1]

The same is true in other countries. According to the Education Policy Research Initiative, in Canada, the most influential factor in accessing post-secondary education is coming from a family with no history of these institutions.[2] In other words, having a family that did not attend university is the factor most likely to tell us if a student will attend university. As more first-generation students join university institutions, what can we learn from their experiences and how can this be reflected in policies?

As a first-generation university student from Canada, this is exactly what I wanted to learn from my dissertation, ‘Unlocking the “Inside Scoop”’. My research project used in-depth interviews with current or recently graduated Ontario University first-generation students to determine what opportunities or resources they used to help them ‘build’ social and cultural capital.

What do we mean when we talk about social and cultural capital? The project used Bourdieu’s conception of cultural and social capital, where cultural capital can be understood as familiarity with ‘dominant’ or mainstream culture and social capital as the resources that individuals possess within networks.[3] In higher education, this might manifest in first-generation students coming to university with limited or ill-informed ideas about the university experience.[4] It may also be reflected in the benefits, or lack thereof, that they gain from their social networks.[5]

Through the research, there were four key areas where first-generation students felt at a disadvantage to their peers:

  • employment and post-graduation opportunities;
  • information;
  • networks;
  • and, navigating the institution.

Across these themes, students identified tools they used to supplement the perceived gaps between themselves and their peers.

Almost all the participants discussed employment and post-graduation opportunities as sources of stress or confusion. This was either because of concerns about finding opportunities and building connections or because of a lack of awareness about non-working class career pathways. For instance, one participant shared that the skills for networking that they felt were necessary to find employment upon graduation were ‘not something that was emphasized in a lot of blue-collar families’. While another participant shared that they weren’t ‘exposed to … corporate life, which a lot of students had been, so [they] would say there was a big gap in terms of understanding how to navigate the world of building a career’.

Several participants tried to circumvent these difficulties by seeking out degree-relevant employment opportunities via internships or placements during their degrees; this allowed them to start building connections and gathering experiences that would help them upon graduation.

The main topic discussed was information; these conversations were either about having base knowledge about the university (i.e., what an undergraduate degree was, how to register for modules, etc.) or about difficulties gaining access to the information they were missing. For instance, one participant talked about not understanding the difference between an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree. One said ‘if your parents are educated, they can explain to you what this education means, what to expect, where to go. You can’t truly understand how different it is to use Google as your learning process … And it’s something that is an extra step for people to overcome’. To address this, participants suggested that specific resources for first-generation students might be helpful, which include commonly asked questions or ‘basic information’.

Broadly, many participants felt at a disadvantage in understanding how the university worked, which made some feel like they had to work harder to catch up to their peers’ understanding. Many talked about not knowing what to expect which was often linked to a previously discussed lack of information and a lack of network who could pass the information to them. Overall, many felt the first two years were the most difficult, as they acclimated to the environment.

What do these insights mean for universities, policymakers, or student organisations? Although there are several different approaches that actors could take to address the experience of first-generation students, a few stood out amongst the research and came recommended by students themselves. These include:

  1. Increasing the participation and agency of first-generation students and their advocates (i.e., student unions, the 93% club, etc.) in conversations and policy development for first-generation-specific programming.
  2. Develop mentorship and networking programmes specifically for first-generation students which allows them to build social networks which help them overcome the unique challenges they experience.
  3. Develop easily accessible information for first-generation students, which covers the basic information as well as answers to frequently asked questions (i.e., handbook delivered to students identified during the application process as first-generation students).

As more students without a family background of post-secondary education enter universities, we have a responsibility to ensure they have the tools to feel and be successful. More research should be done to understand what successful specific interventions might look like.

[1] Harriet Coombs, First-in-Family Students, 2022, p.11

[2] Ross Finnie, Stephen Childs and Andrew Wismer, Access to Post-Secondary Education Among Under-Represented and Minority. Groups: Measuring the Gaps, Assessing the Causes, 2011

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, The forms of capital, 1986

[4] Krystal Campbell and Bhuva Narayan, First-Generation Tertiary Students: Access is not the same as support, 2017

[5] Leah Glass, Social Capital and First-Generation College Students: Examining the Relationship Between Mentoring and College Enrollment, 2022

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