Friday, July 29, 2016

What proportion of UM students are first generation?

In a society that stresses the importance of a quality education—a society that often demands a quality education in order to ensure economic security, the label of “first generation college student” creates many possibilities campus. A student may be a first generation college student for a variety of reasons, but the fact that there are a substantial number of first generation students attending college re-enforces the priority that many place on a college degree as changing future possibilities not just for an individual, but for a whole family. First generation college students pave the way and create an example for the generations that follow.
Despite the pioneering and positive contribution of being a first generation student for the campus community, in the eyes of first generation college students themselves, this label may not always be welcomed. The definition of what a first generation college student is often ambiguous. A “first generation college student” can be defined in at least two different categories. The first category is students whose parents have no college experience whatsoever, and second category is students whose parents attended college but did not graduate.  One way that the University of Michigan collects this information is through the CIRP entering student survey, a survey of first time full time undergraduates nationally, administered at UM by Student Life Research. In a typical year, between 75% and 80% of the incoming cohort takes this survey, resulting in learning from thousands of first year students each year about issues on their minds.
At the University of Michigan in each of the last four years, over 5% of students self-reported as having parents who did not attend any form of college, and over 5% of students self-reported having parents who attended college but did not graduate. According to this information, in 2010 12.7% of our incoming cohort reported being first generation, while in fall 2013 10.6% of the incoming cohort reported being a “first generation college student.”
What might the impact be for the student to be labeled as first generation? When over 85% of the incoming cohort self-reports that at least one of their parents did graduate from college, the “first generation college students” are definitely a member of a seemingly invisible minority. Though today’s culture places an emphasis on attending college and receiving an education that will create future economic and career options, being labeled as a first generation college student can highlight the fact that many of these students come from families of lower socio-economic status or other identities that do not reflect more privileged identities on campus. In this environment, a key adjustment is that learning to ask for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather a key element of belonging on campus. This shift in emphasis is new for so many who are used to figuring out new things on their own.
Being in a new environment is daunting, and not feeling the ability to ask for help on campus or within one’s family makes it more so. Being a first generation college is just one of the many identities that this substantial swath of our incoming cohorts have. All of these identities make the individuals who they are, but in an environment that is molded by a pressure to succeed in the educational field, the label of first generation may to dominate the rest of the identities. In the grand scheme of things, however, helping students fully live the “student” part of that label is a key challenge.
Student Life works actively with other parts of the campus to create support and wayfinding for first generation students to help make this community more welcoming and navigable. We are excited to be part of a larger network helping these students become the Leaders and Best.
Four years of first generation percentages 
Four years of first generation percentages

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