Talking 'Bout My Generation: Defining "First-Generation College Students" in Higher Education Research

Toutkoushian, Robert K.; Stollberg, Robert A.; Slaton, Kelly A.
Publication Year:
Teachers College Record

Background/Context: There have been numerous studies conducted in the higher education literature to determine whether parental education is related to the academic plans and success of their children. Within this literature, particular emphasis is often given to children who are "first-generation college students." However, researchers and policy makers have not reached agreement on what constitutes a first-generation college student and whether the definition affects the findings from their studies. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In this study, we examined whether the way in which first-generation college status was defined affected its association with the likelihood of a student going to college. We used data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:02), which is a nationally representative longitudinal sample of 10th-grade students in 2002 who were followed up in 2004, 2006, and 2012. Research Design: We used binary and multinomial logistic regression analysis to examine how first-generation college status, as well as other personal, family, and school characteristics, were associated with whether a student took a college entrance exam, applied to college, and enrolled in college. For this study, we constructed eight different definitions of a first-generation college student. The definitions varied with regard to the level of education needed for a parent to be considered "college educated" and the number of parents meeting the education criteria. Conclusions/Recommendations: Our results showed that the connection between first-generation college status and these three outcomes varied depending on how first-generation college status was defined. In general, we found larger deficits for first-generation college students when neither parent was college educated and when college educated was defined as earning a bachelor's degree or higher. First-generation college students faced the largest deficits for enrolling in college, and smaller (but often significant) deficits for taking a college entrance exam and applying to college. The results imply that researchers should be very specific about how they are defining first-generation college status and should determine whether their findings are sensitive to how the variable was defined.

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