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Journal of College Student Development 44.3 (2003) 420-429

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Experiences and Outcomes of First-Generation Students in Community Colleges

Ernest T. Pascarella
Gregory C. Wolniak
Christopher T. Pierson
Patrick T. Terenzini


First-generation college students (i.e., students whose parents have never attended college) are the focus of a growing body of research. The weight of evidence from this research suggests that, compared to their peers, first-generation students are at a disadvantage with respect to: basic knowledge about postsecondary education (e.g., costs, application process), level of family income and support, degree expectations and plans, and secondary school academic preparation (e.g., Berkner & Chavez, 1997; Hossler, Schmidt, & Vesper, 1999; Warburton, Bugarin, & Nunez, 2001). Moreover, as summarized by Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, and Nora (1996), first-generation students also have a more problematic transition from secondary school to college than other students. First-generation students confront all the anxieties, dislocations, and difficulties of any college student; but their experiences often involve additional cultural as well as social and academic transitions (Rendon, 1992; Rendon, Hope, & Associates, 1996; Terenzini et al., 1994).

Although we have considerable knowledge about first-generation college students with respect to their academic preparation and transition to postsecondary education, we know little about their college experiences or their cognitive and psychosocial development. A study by Terenzini et al. (1996) is perhaps the only investigation that addresses these outcomes directly. Analyzing first-year data from 23 two-year and four-year institutions participating in the National Study of Learning (NSSL), Terenzini and his colleagues found that compared to their peers, first-generation students: completed fewer credit hours, took fewer humanities and fine arts courses, studied fewer hours and worked more hours per week, were less likely to participate in an honors program, and made smaller first-year gains in reading comprehension. While the Terenzini et al. investigation is an initial step in understanding the college experiences and relative cognitive growth of first-generation students, it is limited by the fact that it followed students only during the first year of college, considered only cognitive outcomes, and combined students attending two-year and four-year institutions. The two-year longitudinal study summarized in this brief research note was a more focused analysis [End Page 420] of the experiences and outcomes of first-generation students attending five community colleges. Specifically, the study had two purposes. First, it sought to estimate net differences between first-generation and other college students in their academic and nonacademic experience of college. Second, it estimated the net differences between first-generation students and their peers after two years of college in select cognitive, psychosocial, and status attainment outcomes. These included standardized measures of science reasoning and writing skills, measures of openness to diversity and challenge, learning for self-understanding, internal locus of control, preference for higher-order cognitive activities, and educational degree plans.


Institutional Sample

The institutional sample consisted of five community colleges located in five different states. The institutions were chosen from the National Center on Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to represent the national population of public community colleges. Three of the community colleges served populations in large metropolitan centers. One of these was on the west coast of the United States, one was in a Middle-Atlantic state, and one was in New England. The fourth and fifth two-year institutions were located in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain areas, respectively. Both were located in the vicinity of moderate size cities. The total population of students at the five community colleges tended to come from a relatively low socioeconomic background, was about 40% individuals of color, and averaged slightly more than 23 years of age at entrance to college.

Student Sample

The individuals in the sample were 144 randomly selected students attending the five community colleges, who participated in the first three data collections (Fall 1992; Spring 1993; Spring 1994) of the National Study of Student Learning (NSSL). (NSSL was a federally funded...


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