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“Not Your Typical Student”: The Social Construction of the “First-Generation” College Student

Abstract

This study challenges the idea that classifying students as first generation is necessarily empowering or helpful for students. The analysis reveals how one college’s discursive construction of the first-generation category benefits the institution at the expense of the students who are classified as such. Using in-depth interviews with staff and first-generation students, along with observation of events aimed at these students, I analyze the discourse about first-generation college students at a selective college and students’ reactions to that discourse. I argue that power operates through the first-generation category by serving the following institutional interests: (1) helping the school to instill a strong sense of institutional identity within first-generation students and (2) providing first-generation students with a hybrid social class identity that discourages them from developing a critical social class awareness. The analysis reveals an institutional discourse about first-generation students that portrays them as academically deficient and in need of cultural transformation. This discourse discourages students from organizing around social class issues by pushing them along an individualist pathway, which is embedded in the meritocratic ideal of individual achievement and neoliberal discouragement of collective class action.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. It is important to note that the discursive meanings applied to this category by colleges are not invented from whole cloth. For example, research indicates that first-generation students have lower graduation rates (Chen 2005; Engle and Tinto 2008; Lohfink and Paulsen 2005), lower college grades (Aspelmeier et al. 2012; Billson and Terry 1982), and weaker integration with campus life (Pascarella et al. 2004) than do their continuing-generation peers. However, discursive constructions of the first-generation category shape students’ perceptions about the sources and magnitudes of these differences, the meanings of these differences, and how to respond to these differences.

  2. The name of the college has been changed.

  3. These data come from a Google Scholar search for studies that include “first-generation college student(s)” or “first generation student(s)” in the title. I included scholarly articles and books, scholarly conference presentations, Ph.D. dissertations, and Master’s theses. I used Google Scholar for two reasons. First, research indicates that Google Scholar tends to return more results than library databases using similar search terms, but this larger yield does not sacrifice the “scholarliness” of the Google Scholar results (Howland et al. 2009). Second, Google Scholar tends to include most of the results yielded by the same search in library databases, whereas library databases tend to include less than half of the results yielded by the same search in Google Scholar (Howland et al. 2009).

  4. I counted only studies that included the search terms in the title in order to omit results in which first-generation college students were not the primary focus.

  5. The cost of tuition, fees, room, and board increased by 98 % at public institutions and 116 % at private institutions between 1969 and 2011 (Snyder and Dillow 2013).

  6. The wage gap between high school and college graduates decreased throughout the 1990s (Barrow and Rouse 2005), leading some to wonder whether the economic returns to a college degree are enough to offset the rising costs of college.

  7. I omit identifying information about all interview participants. In some cases, details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

  8. In fact, research suggests that for students whose parents have less education, attending a selective college may yield greater returns than for those whose parents have more education (Hout 2012).

  9. I interviewed three international students but omit them from this analysis because their experiences and perceptions as first-generation students were heavily informed by the cultural, economic, and political contexts of their countries of origin.

  10. These data were culled from a survey administered annually to the entire first-year class at Cabot between 2010 and 2014. Response rates averaged 33 % over the 5 years of data collection. Each year’s sample closely resembled the population of the first-year class for that year in terms of racial/ethnic and first-generation composition.

  11. For other outcomes and experiences, however, there appear to be wider discrepancies between first- and continuing-generation students. For example, research suggests that graduation rates for first-generation college students are roughly half those for continuing-generation students (Chen 2005; Nuñez and Cuccaro-Alamin 1998). Some research using national samples of students also finds that first-generation students are less engaged socially and academically at college than are continuing-generation students (e.g., Pike and Kuh 2005; Strayhorn 2006).

  12. As a selective college, Cabot likely chooses from a pool of first-generation applicants that is less economically disadvantaged than the pool first-generation applicants at less selective schools. Thus, at less selective schools, there may be larger gaps in academic achievement between first- and continuing-generation students.

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Allison Logan, Quinn Leong, and Sarah Fraas for their research assistance. The author is indebted to David Smilde and five anonymous reviewers for their incisive feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

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Correspondence to Tina Wildhagen.

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Wildhagen, T. “Not Your Typical Student”: The Social Construction of the “First-Generation” College Student. Qual Sociol 38, 285–303 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-015-9308-1

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Keywords

  • Social class
  • Higher education
  • First-generation college students
  • Categorization
  • Inequality in higher education