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Why Do First-Gen Students Prefer Online Ed?

Surprising new survey results indicate that first-generation college students whose parents never graduated from college prefer online education by a substantial margin over peers with college alumni parents. The polling shows that 76 percent of first-generation students reported that they’re interested in taking future online education courses. That’s almost ten percentage points more than peers who grew up with parents who are college alums.

However, it remains unclear precisely why these first-gen students are so much more enthusiastic about online education. Even less clear is who qualifies for the designation “first-generation college student” because there’s no uniformity in how colleges and universities across the United States define this status—which typically unlocks many thousands of dollars worth of support services and benefits. And all the conflicting criteria have sparked heated controversy because students without alumni parents find themselves caught up in a high-stakes situation that’s confusing to understand and challenging to steer through.

Why is First-Generation Status So Significant?

First-generation status is a crucial predictor of a student’s probability of success in college. A decade ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a succinct synopsis of key characteristics that a first-generation designation signifies:

First-generation status is one of higher education’s main markers of student disadvantage, along with Pell Grant eligibility and membership in an underrepresented minority group. And there’s a good reason for that: Researchers have known for years that parents’ level of education is a big predictor of whether students enroll in and complete college.

Because of that connection, colleges and other groups pay particular attention to this group of students. Some colleges consider first-generation status as one factor that can help put an applicant’s achievements in context during the admissions process. There are special scholarships for first-generation students. Various programs offer them additional support during the application process and while they are enrolled. That means being identified as first generation could help shape a student’s college selection and experience.

Researchers working for the federal government first learned in 1966 that parents’ highest education levels predict with precise accuracy whether their children will enroll in college and graduate. That was the year the U.S. Department of Education released a landmark, large-scale nationwide survey mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Called Equality of Educational Opportunity, this famous study today is colloquially known as the Coleman Report in honor of the project’s principal investigator, Dr. James Coleman from the sociology department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“All factors considered, the most important variable—in or out of school—in a child’s performance remains his family’s education background,” said Dr. Coleman. During the nearly six decades since the report was first released, several initiatives tried to disprove this conclusion, including one high-profile effort at Harvard University led by professor and future U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. None was successful.

The Johnson Administration’s Education Department rapidly determined that the report’s findings were incendiary because they weren’t even close to what the American public had expected. The Administration then tried to suppress the report after those who had expected to use it to justify more money for schools were disappointed.

Civil rights advocates instead used the Coleman Report to justify continued funding for two new Education Department programs, Upward Bound and Talent Search, and in 1968 to fund Special Services for Disadvantaged Students (later known as Student Support Services or SSS). As key components of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and continuing today as the TRIO Programs, these were the first federal college access and retention initiatives designed to overcome America’s social and cultural obstacles to higher education. The TRIO programs, for the first time, offered disadvantaged students access to targeted federal support services, and they laid the groundwork for later legislation that classified first-generation students among those disadvantaged students eligible for federal and state service programs.

Who is a First-Generation College Student?

Even though first-generation status is critically important at predicting college enrollment and completion, ten years after the publication of the Chronicle’s synopsis, there’s still no universal reference standard that identifies students who lack support from college-educated parents with navigating college journeys. College policies about which students qualify primarily fall into “restrictive vs. expansive” camps, based on whether parents failed to enroll in college (the restrictive criteria) as opposed to whether they failed to graduate (the expansive criteria).

The expansive criteria were first codified into federal legislation 12 years after the launch of TRIO’s Student Support Services. The Education Amendments of 1980, in which Congress updated the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), defined a “first-generation college student” under the more expansive classification as “a person neither of whose parents completed a baccalaureate degree.” A later set of amendments to the HEA passed by Congress in 1998 and currently in effect recites similar language:

  1. FIRST-GENERATION COLLEGE STUDENT.—The term ‘‘first-generation college student’’ means—
  1. An individual both of whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree; or
  2. In the case of any individual who regularly resided with and received support from only one parent, an individual whose only such parent did not complete a baccalaureate degree.

This language from the 1998 Higher Education Act Amendments has become the de facto standard definition cited under most current federal legislation and administrative regulations. However, even within the federal government, exceptions exist where a few agencies use a different definition. For example, some reports from NCES, the National Center for Education Statistics, instead label students who were the “first in their families to attend college” as first generation.

Dr. Dick Startz, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and an expert on first-generation students, estimates in a Brookings Institution analysis that around 43 percent of entering college students across the nation qualify under the federal criteria.

Nevertheless, as reported by the New York Times, definitions of first-generation students applied by colleges across the nation vary widely, even across academic programs and departments within the same institution. Moreover, many of these definitions are more restrictive than the expansive federal standard—meaning that these restrictive criteria deprive many students of benefits that others qualifying under the expansive criteria receive.

For example, a 2015 University of Georgia study of 7,300 students across America found that out of eight definitions in use since 2002, 22 percent of the students were considered first-generation under the most restrictive definition. However, under the most expansive criteria, 77 percent qualified.

Who is a First-Gen College Student in California?

This situation is especially confusing in California, where the state’s three postsecondary education systems all apply different definitions. According to higher education correspondent Adam Echelman with CalMatters and Open Campus, the stakes are especially high for first-gen students in that state for two reasons.

First, public universities in California explicitly consider the education level of a student’s parents or guardians in admissions decisions. Other things equal, that fact typically means that the admissions standards for first-gen applicants will be less competitive, and their chances of winning entry at better colleges will be greater.

Second, in some of the state’s regions, like the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, first-generation students are eligible for thousands of dollars worth of support and tutoring throughout high school and college. However, these students first must qualify under a specific definition.

From a national perspective, California’s criteria are relevant for another reason. That state’s colleges and universities have applied first-generation status as a mechanism to boost diversity on their campuses ever since the bellwether state’s electorate voted down affirmative action in 1996—nearly three decades ago. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has also banned affirmative action across the nation, hundreds of colleges in other states are evaluating plans that implement similar mechanisms to promote equity and inclusion.

Curiously, in California, a student awarded first-gen benefits through one college system can be denied those benefits by another. For example, the highly selective, flagship University of California applies the expansive federal standard, where a first-generation college student is defined as “a student where neither parent nor guardian have earned a four-year college degree.” Under this criteria, 37 percent of UC undergraduates received benefits as first-generation college students during the fall 2023 term.

Oddly enough, that’s an even larger percentage than the 35 percent of first-gen students attending the open-enrollment California Community Colleges. It’s because the CCC system applies a far more restrictive definition: “Students who ever reported that none of their parents/guardians attended college, or one of their parents/guardians attended college if no information reported or unknown for other parent/guardian.”

Within the regional California State University system, systemwide statistics don’t appear to be available, and different campuses apply different criteria. For example, Cal State’s Fullerton campus says that “more than 32.4 percent of our student population identifies as first-generation: the first in their family to go to college.” But Cal State Los Angeles applies the federal definition, and a whopping 57.1 percent there receive benefits as first-gen students.

Victor Rojas, the director of TRIO programs at Mt. San Antonio College east of Los Angeles, told Echelman that students who qualify under the federal test because their parents lack bachelor’s degrees automatically qualify for TRIO. Upon starting high school, those students become eligible to receive more than $4,600 worth of targeted support services from that federal program during each year, and up to $2,000 worth of services for each year during college.

The value of those federal services adds up. A qualifying student who spends four years in both high school and college would receive $26,400 worth of TRIO’s benefits.

In addition, two California state grant programs similar to TRIO—Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, plus Student Equity and Achievement—also fund services provided to help first-generation students. However, under those programs each college has discretion about what sort of eligibility criteria they apply.

So Why Do First-Gen Students Prefer Online Ed?

As we mentioned, it remains unclear why first-generation students are much more enthusiastic about online education—so much so that they had favored this modality over classroom instruction by nearly ten percentage points in a November 2023 survey.

That polling was conducted by WGU Labs, the research and innovation arm of America’s second-largest college by enrollment, Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University. WGU Labs interviewed a representative sample of 3,143 students at nine colleges across America. The pollsters drew their sample from public and private four-year universities, community colleges, and primarily online nonprofit institutions. Western Governors University itself was not one of the colleges where students were polled.

We can recognize a couple of likely reasons why first-gen students prefer online education from remarks about the survey by WGU’s President Scott Pulsipher. In a February 2024 op-ed published by Higher Ed Dive, President Pulsipher pointed out that first-gen students typically come from backgrounds marked by unique experiences when compared to the upbringings of the majority of their peers who grew up with college-educated parents. He continues:

Their unique experiences may also render them more open to innovative, tech-enabled models. Whereas college-educated parents often project their own aspirations and preconceived notions of what college means onto their children, first-generation students are immune.

President Pulsipher also references all the ways that online learning delivers compelling advantages for first-gen students because it’s so much more economical, accessible, and convenient than traditional instruction on campus:

The ability to learn anytime, anywhere—and often for a fraction of the cost—can be particularly impactful for these individuals who are more likely to juggle full-time jobs, come from low-income families, and provide for dependents while pursuing their degrees.

President Pulsipher contends that in light of first-gen students’ decisive preference for online instruction revealed by the survey, colleges need to develop and implement deliberate online strategies that better serve these vulnerable students. He argues that higher education leaders should ensure their online degree programs and courses are designed to deliver five targeted components to support their first-gen students:

  1. Intentional design for the virtual environment
  2. Excellent teaching backed by time, resources, and training
  3. Engaging experiences that motivate students in ways difficult to replicate in person
  4. Personalized learning from faculty who intervene when students most need their help
  5. Valuable credentials that lead to economic mobility.

“Done right, online learning can be a powerful vehicle for connecting individuals to opportunity,” President Pulsipher says. “But if leaders aren’t careful, tech-enabled instruction—just like its in-person counterpart—has the potential to leave underserved students behind.”

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.