Struggling in College? It's Not a First-Generation Thing, Researchers Say

Radford University psychology faculty and student researchers have a whole new way of thinking about first-generation college students based on a recent study conducted in the university's Department of Psychology.

The study, published in the November 2012 issue of the Journal of Research in Higher Education, shows that, contrary to the popular belief that first-generation students perform more poorly in college than continuing-education students, there is little direct association between being the first in one's family to attend college and struggling to keep up.

Rather, the authors, Radford University psychology professors Jeff Aspelmeier, Ann Elliott and Tom Pierce, doctoral candidate Michael Love and alumnus Lauren McGill '10, suggest that the relationship is more complicated.

"Some first-generation students do have difficulty in college," Aspelmeier said. "However, nearly an equal number seem to do quite well in college, outperforming their continuing generation peers."

The research sample contained 322 undergraduate students who completed online measures of self-esteem, locus of control and academic adjustment, and provided self-reports of GPA, Aspelmeier said.

"Even though being a first-generation student doesn’t directly impact one's academic outcomes, generational status seems to influence how other variables impact academic outcomes," Aspelmeier said. "Generally, it was found that the relationship between psychological factors and academic outcomes were strongest among first-generation students."

Further examination of the results suggested that, "for some variables like locus of control, first-generation status acts as a sensitizing factor that amplifies both the positive and negative effects" and, in contrast, "for self-esteem, first generation status acts as a risk factor that only exacerbates the negative effects of low self-esteem," the professor said.

The Journal of Research in Higher Education covers topics associated with curriculum and instruction; recruitment and admissions; and retention, attrition and transfer.