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Because We Care: Retaining Low-Income, First-Generation College Students

Jennylee McLaughlin

Western Carolina University



Over 18 million undergraduate students are enrolled in higher education institutions

across the United States in 2010 (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). For most students,

college is a time of both high excitement and grave concerns. Most adapt quickly to their new

environment and eventually prove their success by graduating. However, for a minority such as

low-income, first-generation students, they encounter challenges regarding their access to

college, sense of belonging, and success in college, and thus graduate at lower rates across

institutional types (DeAngelo, Frank, Hurtado, Pryor, & Tran, 2011). Researchers have been

comparing this population since the 1980s. However, it is significant for student affairs

professionals to understand how low-income, first-generation students are diverse from their

peers, and how to support them so they can succeed in higher education. This paper will identify

barriers that affect the success of low-income first-generation students, discuss literature and

theoretical frameworks supporting retention rates, and implication strategies to close the

opportunity gap.

Review of the Literature

Low-income status is defined as having an annual household income under $25,000

(Contreras, 2012). “First-generation college students are students who are the first in their

families to attend and complete college” (Contreras, 2012 p. 911). This group of students often

includes students of color, immigrants, and veterans. The National Center for Education

Statistics (NCES), stated that 34% of undergraduates were first-generation students in the 2011-

12 academic year (NCES, 2013). Researchers have distinguished the main factors that suppress

access and persistence toward degree completion include financial difficulties, academic

preparation, isolation on campus, and the poor effects of social and cultural capital on both

access and persistence in college (Coffman, 2011).

Though there are countless ways for students to become involved and devoted to their

academic pursuit, high-impact practices have been identified as having elevating, exceptional,

and influential results on students’ experiences. Kuh (2008) explains that these practices

automatically immerse students into intentionally designed activities, frequent interactions with

faculty and peers through active forms of learning, and help students gain opportunities to use

their knowledge within real-world environments. Studies have encouraged practitioners to offer

more engagement opportunities, which is proven to impact the percentage of students

successfully retained and graduated, such as learning environments and undergraduate research

opportunities (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2008). When students are not provided the

opportunity to engage in purposeful, educational activities, they may struggle academically and

be less engaged. For example, Pike, Kuh, & Massa-McKinley (2008) discovered that students

who have a paid job and work more than twenty hours per week had lower grades and lower

levels of engagement (as measured by National Survey of Student Engagement survey).

Although all students would benefit from high-impact practices, Finley & McNair (2013) found

that low-income, first-generation students tend to benefit more from participation in five to six

high-impact practices. These students reported higher engagement in deep learning practices

such as integrative, reflective, synthesized, and applied learning (Finley & McNair, 2013).

Theoretical Framework

There are many theories which support low-income, first-generation students’ success.

However, two of the most applicable theories are those supported by Alexander Astin and

Vincent Tinto. Many researchers have found that one size does not fit all regarding low-income,

first-generation college students. Tinto’s 1975 model of student retention stated that students

who academically and socially integrate into life on campus increase their commitment to the

institution and are more likely to graduate (Tinto, 2003). For instance, having good faculty-

student communications and using the available resources that enhance academic success (i.e.,

writing center, tutoring, academic advising, and office hours) have shown to impact retention

positively through academically and socially integrating students into the college community.

Astin’s 1984 Theory of Student Involvement connected academic performance to student

involvement. The theory describes how anticipated outcomes for postsecondary institutions are

perceived as linked to how students develop due to involvement with experiences that mirror the

academic curriculum. The main ideas of the theory incorporate students’ demographics and any

prior experience, experiences they would encounter during college, and their characteristics,

knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs during post-graduation. Based on the involvement theory, Astin

(1984) gathered that involvement is constant and the amount of commitment from students vary.

Nevertheless, a feeling of belonging is essential, especially for first-generation students. Student

involvement with organizations or leadership positions and participation in other intentional

activities on campus links with retention and academics (Webber, Krylow, Zhang, 2013);

therefore, universities are encouraging students to be involved.

Discussion and Analysis

Postsecondary institutions that desire to increase their retention and graduation rates for

low-income, first-generation population would need to commit to collaborate across the whole

institution to support students’ needs across the curriculum. Therefore, social integration support,

academic support partnerships, and faculty support are critical. Social integration support

involves the ways which institutions design programs and high-impact practices to enhance the

holistic college experience for students, such as living-learning communities, summer bridge

transition programs, new student orientation before and during freshman year, and clubs and

organizations for first-generation students. The next category emphasizes academic collaboration

to assist low-income, first-generation students. For instance, peer-mentoring support, financial

literacy, and comprehensive academic support programs (career advising), and first-year learning

environments will help to reduce the stress of transition to college. Faculty development includes

inclusive classrooms for first-generation students through faculty training, such as collaborative

teaching and faculty mentoring programs. Even though support services can have an impact on

students’ performance and the desire to keep pushing on, it is important to bear in mind that

achievement in the classroom is the foundation for success in college. For low-income, first-

generation students, their time spent in the classroom may be the only time they spend on

campus interacting with peers and faculty since many of them live and work off campus.

Researchers, educators, and student affairs professionals must also identify these students and

learn more about their college readiness, social and academic necessities, and expectations. Low-

income, first-generation college students require targeted retention and success services and

programs that are created with them in mind. Pendakur (2016) describes the implementation of

identity-centered diversity and cultural enrichment programs. This approach is essential to know

who institutions are trying to serve before the curriculum or plan is developed. For instance,

student affairs professionals are encouraged to plan special sessions within orientation day that

involves low-income, first-generation students of color and their families to interact with support

services staff and faculty.

Campus-wide partnerships to create support systems for low-income, first-generation

students is vital. For example, collaborate with office of admissions for data on new students

who identify as low-income, first-generation and have a pre-orientation event for this population

of students with their families. This collaboration would lead to a culture of success, because

they will be able to strive to establish their retention efforts into a structured and proactive

campus program through family engagement and campus partnerships. Furthermore, partaking in

student organizations and campus programs is another strategy which can enhance student

involvement. It is also important that institutions reach out to these students as regularly as

possible to provide useful information about other support services such as financial aid,

scholarships, and academic advising.


“Many, if not all first-generation students have little such knowledge and encouragement

to support their transition into a college or university” (Ward, Siegel & Davenport, 2012, p. 106).

Access to and success in postsecondary education is not an easy feat for many low-income, first-

generation students. Academic preparedness, engagement, and collaboration, support student

success for this unique population of students.

If future investigations reveal that more students are enrolling in postsecondary

institutions part-time or in more online-based courses, academic and student affairs professionals

will need to brainstorm effective ways to get these students involved. Institutional administrators

must fully understand how the educational experiences it offers affects students, particularly

low-income, first-generation students. When they do, the institution will then be able to refine

and develop educational opportunities for all students to succeed.



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