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Understand First-Generation Families to Better Support First-Generation Students

Submitted by Dee Dee Snyder,

College students’ parents sometimes get a bad rap. (Think helicopter parents, or worse, lawnmower parents.) For many years, parents of first-generation college students have been seen as forces “to be overcome” by colleges because these parents are perceived as being disengaged from their students’ college experiences or being negative influences. However, in “TRIO Families: Leveraging Strengths of First Generation Families,” presented at the 2018 Council for Opportunity in Education Conference, Meagan Stark and Dr. Michelle Hurley asked us to view first-generation parents through a different lens. Stark and Hurley contend that a better understanding of first-generation parents gives us important insights into their students, and first-generation parents can be our allies in providing vital support to their students.

Although we know there are exceptions, research shows that many first-generation students report that their families were instrumental in their “breaking through” to be the first in their family to pursue a college degree (Gofen, 2009). Stark and Hurley asked us to consider ways first-generation families influence their students:

  • First-generation families are often key influencers in their student’s decision to go to college.
  • First-generation parents’ attitudes toward their own education and involvement in their student’s education establishes education as a family goal.
  • Family bonds and family sacrifice to help students get to college are powerful motivators for first-generation students.
  • First-generation and low-income families have experienced success despite exposure to risk and have adapted to risk in order to remain viable in adverse conditions. As a result, first-generation students bring resilience with them to college.

Given first-generation parents’ influence on their students, how can institutions channel that influence to help support their students? Stark’s and Hurley’s suggestions included:

  • Family/parent mentor program to enhance individual guidance
  • Parent-focused newsletters: snail-mail is the best option for this population
  • Family/parent workshops—timing and location are key
  • Family questionnaire: what do they want to know about the institution?
  • Family/parent orientation outlining the experience for first-generation students: what does a day in the life of a student look like?
  • Financial literacy workshops focusing on scholarships, budgeting for college
  • Practical assistance: identifying food services, clothing resources for interviews, tech resources, FAFSA and financial aid verification, healthcare options

Over half of Ohio State ATI’s students are first-generation college students, and we have myriad opportunities to interact with them over the course of a year. How might we engage our students’ families to help us retain and graduate our first-generation students?



Gofen, A. (2009). Family Capital: How First-Generation Higher Education Students

Break the Intergenerational Cycle.  Family Relations, 58, 104-120.


Stark, M., Hurley, M. (2018, September). TRIO Families: Leveraging Strengths of

First Generation Families. Investing in Futures and Empowering

Families. 37th Annual Conference of the Council for Opportunity in Education, New York.