Why Engaging More First Gen Students in Higher Education Matters

In this special time of demagoguery and democratic politics, much is made of the need to sustain the nation's competitiveness in an ever increasing global economy. But as most states know quite well, the competitiveness of any community rests primarily on the education and training of their workforce. And so goes the competitiveness, and eventually the continued success, of the United States.

Answering the broad question of how prepared is the nation's workforce to compete is not easy. However, examining a few facts will be helpful. Firstly, data from the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce (CEW) estimates that by 2020 at least 65% of jobs will require post-secondary education. Secondly, estimates on how many individuals in their prime working age currently have a college education (i.e. an Associate's degree or higher) ranges from 26% to 43%, which while varying widely (and a testament to how poor our labor readiness data is), still clearly indicates that we are well short of what future jobs require. Suggesting that we as a nation will not be in the optimum competitive position.

By 2020 the number of total jobs in the US is projected to increase to 165 million, from 140 million in 2010. Of these 165 million jobs, about 65% or 107 million will require some type of post-secondary education. Using the most optimist estimates (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), we can then assume that about 40% (i.e. 56 million) of the current workforce has a college degree (attaining a Certificate or greater). Hence, we seem to be short about 50 million college graduates if we are to meet our 2020 goals.

So, and ignoring the debate around whether all the jobs that are currently listed as requiring postsecondary education training actually need it (i.e. suffer from job requirement inflation), the fact that employability varies according to discipline studied, and the fact that the potential population of students is declining, what is clear is that we will need to ensure a successful postsecondary education to about 50 million more individuals than previously.

But where will these students come from? In part the greater number of individuals with a post-secondary education will result from the improved success of those students already attending a university or college. Tragically, the 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students in the U.S. is only about 60%. Much room to improve.

This graduation rate varies markedly by whether the students are considered 'First Gens', i.e. those who are the first members of their families to attend college, or not. For example, data from the Georgetown University CEW indicates that 55% of students who were not First Gen earned a Certificate, Associate, Bachelors, or higher degree, compared to only 40% of First Gen students.

And it isn't just lower college completion rates. First Gen students also enroll in college at much lower rates than non-First Gen students. An analysis from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicated that 82% of non-First Gen students enrolled in college immediately after finishing high school, vs. 54% of students whose parents had completed only high school and 36% of students whose parents had less than a high school diploma.

While students for who neither parent attended college are at greatest risk for not graduating with a college degree, defining 'First Gen' in other more expansive ways (e.g. those with only one parent graduating college, or with parents who attended but didn't graduate college, etc.) does not make much difference. In fact, regardless of how they're defined, First Gen students enroll and graduate at lower rates than do other students.

Less we think that First Gen students are a minority... or are minorities, think again.
First Gen students comprise about one-third of all college undergraduates. And between 30% and 40% of potential college students in the U.S. A very large cohort of potential college graduates. And while many First Gen students are ethnic minorities, 50% of these individuals are actually non-Hispanic White. Thus, for those who care for such things, the conundrum of the First Gen student is not just a "minority or immigrant" problem.

Overall, our nation's competitiveness will be based largely on the preparedness of its workforce; which, to a great degree, means the college education they are able to achieve. Implementing effective methods for how to motivate, educate, and eventually ensure the success of the very large cohort of First Gen students is one of the most effective means of addressing our nation's future workforce needs. And ensuring its future global competitiveness.

Note: I am grateful to Dr. Daniel J. Almeida, Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo for his kind assistance with the preparation of this analysis