In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Examining Conceptual and Operational Definitions of "First-Generation College Student" in Research on Retention
  • Karie Jo Peralta (bio) and Monica Klonowski (bio)

Students who have parents with little to no postsecondary education have an increasing presence in colleges and universities (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Researchers recognize that these individuals face unique barriers in higher education programs that affect their ability to graduate (Jamelske, 2009). Given the wide concern about student retention (Engle & Tinto, 2008), attention to this group of college students labeled "first-generation" (Ward, Seigel, & Davenport, 2012, p. 3) is particularly important.

The concept first-generation college student is defined differently across studies (Ward et al., 2012). Ward, Seigel, and Davenport (2012) pointed to the inconsistency between definitions and the resulting implications for the field of higher education noting that the lack of a single definition of first-generation college student creates difficulty in understanding the positions of researchers on the topic. Therefore, what becomes increasingly challenging is generalizing and comparing information about this group. Because research can inform the development of programs intended to serve first-generation college students (Ghazzawi & Jagannathan, 2011), examining how studies operationalize concepts of this group is a critical step in considering their application.

This article builds on the work of Ward et al. (2012) by focusing on the conceptualization and operationalization of the term first-generation college student in current, cutting-edge research in higher education through a "systematic review" (Booth, Papaioannou, & Sutton, 2012, p. 23) of studies. We adopted Fink's (2005) definition of a literature review: "a systematic, explicit, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work produced by researchers" (p. 3). Specifically, we reviewed 24 articles published from January 2005 through December 2015 in six journals that were concluded to be top-tier higher education journals in a 2011 study by Bray and Major. The purpose of this article is to shed light on the extent of inconsistency between definitions of the concept first-generation college student in studies that are published in high-impact higher education journals. [End Page 630]


First-generation college students face a number of challenges throughout their academic career (Aspelmeier, Love, McGill, Elliott, & Pierce, 2012). After enrolling, these students face issues in the areas of student involvement, faculty expectations, and degree completion: for example, Unverferth, Talbert-Johnson, and Bogard (2012) found that when compared to their peers, first-generation college students have greater perceived difficulties and lower graduation rates. Academically, these students often arrive underprepared, which results in the need for them to complete remedial courses before they can begin earning credit toward a degree. Due to their inadequate preparation, they tend to have low academic performance (Wiggins, 2011). Furthermore, research shows first-generation students have socioeconomic and housing concerns related to high job demands, financial aid access, and the need to live off campus (Unverferth et al., 2012). First-generation students of color who attend predominantly White institutions experience additional challenges, such as a negative racial campus climate (Fischer, 2007), lack of cultural sensitivity, and racism, which result in feelings of isolation (McCoy, 2014).


Engle and Tinto (2008) revealed in their report that nearly five million first-generation college students had enrolled in institutions of higher education over the previous decade. In order to prepare this student population for success, universities across the country have focused their efforts on providing both academic and social support through the implementation of new programs. One such strategy, the bridge program, prepares individuals for the college experience and is effective in enrolling (Ghazzawi & Jagannathan, 2011) and retaining first-generation students (Cabrera, Miner, & Milem, 2013). Originating in 1964, TRIO programs successfully facilitate the experience of first-generation college students by offering assistance in navigating the administrative aspects of college and providing academic support (Graham, 2011).

Tinto (2009) identified four primary factors that contribute to student success which relate to integrating the student fully into the college setting: support, expectations, feedback, and involvement. His research showed that students benefit from access to campus resources, collaborative learning, and teachers who have clear expectations and methods to track...