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  • Parent–Student Communication About College and Freshman Grades in First-Generation and Non–First-Generation Students
  • Julienne A. Palbusa (bio) and Mary Gauvain (bio)

First-generation college students are students whose parents did not attend and finish college (Engle, 2007). These students enter college with less knowledge of college activities and expectations, and they have less social support at home regarding college issues during this transition relative to students whose parents went to college (Engle, 2007; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). These experiences may affect the college success of first-generation students, which is borne out by research on their academic vulnerability. First-generation students are more likely to have lower first-semester grades and drop out in the first year of college compared to their non–first-generation peers (Ishitani, 2006; Riehl, 1994). First-generation students also report feeling less prepared for college and more fearful of failure than students whose parents went to college (Bui, 2002). These patterns underscore the need for research on factors that affect the academic success of first-generation college students.

Prior research has found that students whose parents attended college begin college with more understanding of higher education than do first-generation students (Engle, 2007). Parents pass on knowledge along with advice and emotional support that help their children when they encounter new challenges, such as the transition to college. Research shows that when planning for and beginning college, young people benefit from [End Page 107] interacting with parents and others who have college experience (Hurtado & Gauvain, 1997; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005). These interactions can enhance a student’s awareness, understanding, and proficiency in the codes of conduct, rules, and practices—or cultural capital—of this setting (Bourdieu, 1973). These informal learning experiences and forms of support are more available for students whose parents attended college than for first-generation college students (Engle, 2007).

In this study, we investigate parent–student communication about college during the transition to college. First-year college students at a large public university participated in an online survey about these communication experiences. Participants were asked about the frequency of their communication with parents about college and their perceptions of the helpfulness and quality of emotional and instrumental support in these interactions. Emotional support is concern about the child’s feelings about college. Instrumental support is parents’ availability as a resource about college. The relation with students’ first-year academic success was also studied.

We compared the responses of students who are the first in their family to attend college and students whose parents attended college. Data from these two groups were compared using t tests for mean levels of responses, and multiple regression analysis was used to examine the relation between parent–student communication about college and students’ academic achievement. Based on prior research, we expected non–first-generation students would report that, before beginning college, they talked more frequently with their parents about college and found these conversations to be more helpful compared to first-generation students. We also expected that non–first-generation students would report that this communication was of higher instrumental quality, though not higher in emotional support. Previous research has found that parental support predicts college grades (Cutrona, Cole, Colangelo, Assouline, & Russell, 1994). We expected that parent– student communication about college would have a positive relation with students’ first-year academic performance regardless of their parents’ college attendance.



The sample included 344 first-year college students (n = 201, 58.4% first-generation) attending a 4-year public university in Southern California. Their mean age was 18.05 years (SD = 0.38), 66.3% were female, and 50.6% came from low-income families. The sample was racially/ethnically diverse, with 35.2% Asian American, 37.5% Latino American, 14.8% White / European American, 4.1% Black / African American, and 8.4% other or no response.

Procedure and Measures

First-year college students at the university (N = 4,187) were sent an e-mail inviting them to participate in an online study about college students’ experiences and transition to college. A total of 344 students volunteered to participate, an 8.2% response rate. The university provided reports of participants’ college generation status, family...


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pp. 107-112
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