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  • Getting Critical About Critical Thinking:The Role of Parental Education on First-Generation Students' Cognitive Gains in College
  • Cindy Ann Kilgo (bio), Carson W. Phillips (bio), Georgianna L. Martin (bio), Erica Campbell (bio), and Ernest T. Pascarella (bio)

Colleges and universities frequently espouse cultivating critical thinking skills as a major outcome for students; however, scholars have recently noted that increases in critical thinking skills are not being attained by college graduates as previously thought (see Arum & Roksa, 2011; Pascarella, Blaich, Martin, & Hanson, 2011). Additionally, as a result of increased access to higher education in recent decades, there has been a major diversification in student populations. Davis (2010) estimated that more than one out of every three first-year college students is the first person in their family to pursue higher education. While all students encounter difficulties in transitioning to college, the experience is more pronounced for first-generation college students (Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996). Definitions of first-generation college student differ across scholarly studies. Understanding this population's gains in critical thinking skills is essential for helping faculty and administrators to provide better academic and social support. We contend that how first-generation college student is operationalized has implications for understanding the critical thinking skills that these students gain in college.


A first-generation college student is typically defined broadly as the first person in a family to attend college (Mitchell, 1997). Peralta and Klonowski (2017) synthesized the literature on college student retention for first-generation college students, revealing variance in the definition with evolution from parental education of no college attendance to parental education of no college completion. Renn and Reason (2013) noted the difficulty in knowing exactly how many first-generation college students exist based on the lack of consensus about a definition, but that these students' enrollment patterns are far different [End Page 756] than their continuing-generation counterparts.

There is general consensus that first-generation students encounter numerous challenges in their matriculation and persistence in college (Padgett, Johnson, & Pascarella, 2012; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004; Ward, Siegel, & Davenport, 2012). First-generation students face an array of social and academic obstacles in their pursuit of higher education, including financial difficulties (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005), lack of knowledge about college processes (Ward et al., 2012), lower levels of academic preparation (Atherton, 2014; Engle & Tinto, 2008), and challenges with adjusting to college norms of independence (Stephens, Fryberg, Markus, Johnson, & Covarrubias, 2012). First-generation college students are also more likely to come from lower-income backgrounds and racial minority groups (Choy, 2001; Ward et al., 2012) than their continuing-generation peers.


Previous research has demonstrated a positive relationship between students' parental education and first-year gains in critical thinking skills (Terenzini, Springer, Pascarella, & Nora, 1995). In their study, the researchers coded parental education continuously, which did not shed light on the effects of specific levels of parental education. Pascarella et al. (2004) also examined whether differences existed specifically for first-generation students regarding their critical thinking skills. Their study operationalized parental education in three ways—no parental college experience, moderate parental college education/experience, and high parental college education/experience—and found no significant differences in critical thinking. Decades later, the scholarly literature still lacks a thorough investigation of how parental education affects students' critical thinking gains during college.


We sought to examine the role that parental education has on students' critical thinking gains over 4 years of college. Given the lack of consensus about how to define first-generation status, we also investigated how the influence of parental education varies when operationalized in different ways. The following research question guided our inquiry: Does first-generation status predict end-of-fourth-year critical thinking?


We used data from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (WNS; Center of Inquiry, n.d.). The WNS is a longitudinal, pretest/posttest design study that examined the effects from participation in liberal arts college experiences on both cognitive and affective student learning outcomes varied by institutional selectivity, size, location, and control.

Data Collection

Data collection for the WNS occurred in three waves for each of the three cohorts (2006–2010, 2007...