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Socialization & The Advantage of Being a 2nd Generation Student

First-generation college students (i.e. students whose parents did not graduate from college) have lower graduation rates than second-generation college students. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains the ways in which having college-educated parents influenced her own college experience and success.

First-generation college students (i.e. students whose parents did not graduate from college) are at higher risk of not completing college compared to students who have parents who completed college. Consider these statistics reported in USA Today:

Nationally, 89% of low-income first-gen[eration college students] leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students.

What is going on here?

First-generation college students face obstacles that non-first-generation college students do not face, while non-first-generation college students typically fail to recognize the advantages they have as college students. I’m a third-generation college graduate. Besides a statistically likely income advantage compared to first-generation college students, I can think of specific examples of how the fact that my parents’ (and my grandma) graduated college helped me succeed in college. They used their experiences to socialize me towards college success.

My parents told stories about college. Sure, I could watch movies or read books that take place in college, but let’s be real, Old School and Animal House are hardly accurate portrayals of the college experience. I heard stories about roommates, parties, and fire alarms in the dorms. These stories sounded a lot more fun when I was in high school, but were sometimes a lot less fun in reality, for instance trudging up the stairs to my seventh-floor dorm room in the middle of the night thanks to a fire alarm was not a blast. They also told stories about listening to your teachers with examples of what happened when they listened to their teachers. In one story, one of my parents had a teacher that stressed reading through the entire exam before answering any questions. My mom or dad did this and the last question instructed students to turn in the exam without answering any questions. My mom or dad did this while most of the other’s in the class furiously completed the exam. (I’m pretty sure this teaching method would not fly today, but it was evidently acceptable in the 1970s.)

They told stories that made college sound fun and stories that had a more profound or practical message to them.

My parents knew the “rules” of college. They repeatedly told me about drop-dates, which make the difference between a refund or no refund and an F or a W. They told me to take 15 hours instead of the 12-hour minimum for full-time status. What difference does this make? Well, it certainly contributed to me completing a Bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four. It also means you spend less money on student fees because you can potentially graduate earlier. Think about it:

12 credit hours*x semesters=120 credit hours

x= 10 semesters

This means that unless you plan on taking summer school, it will take a minimum of five years to graduate at only 12 credits a semester. This is two additional semesters of fees and housing. This assumes, not changing your major or dropping a class or two along the way.

My parents told me to keep track of my own progress rather than only relying only on my adviser. My adviser rocked (thank you, Michelle Hughes Miller!), but advisers can make mistakes. Their mistakes can easily mean an additional semester of college, unless you are also keeping check of your progress.

My parents were fine if not encouraging of my undeclared-major status when I entered college. Why? As an undeclared major I focused on taking general education courses that were required of any degree rather than jumping right into major courses and changing my major multiple times. There is nothing wrong with changing a major, but this can add semesters to your college career and increase your student loan debt. I was an undeclared-social work major momentarily my second semester. It resulted in me taking the required introduction to sociology course and well, the rest is history. I am a big fan of having an undeclared major through your first year of college, with one caveat. If there is a major you are considering check to make sure your general education course selection will work with that major. I earned a C my first semester because I was considering a degree in veterinary medicine. I ended up in the life science course that would count towards my general education and the pre-vet track. This experience also confirmed the many reasons why veterinary science was not for me.

My parents did not expect me to hold a job while in college. I did work on semester breaks and eventually took on jobs that allowed me to easily be a full-time college student (like as a notetaker, which is probably the sweetest job on any college campus as a college student because you can get paid to take notes in a class you are already enrolled). I took a job off-campus one summer that required significantly more commitment on my part, but my parents were perfectly fine when I quit that job a couple weeks into the fall semester so I could focus on school. And my college-educated grandma (thanks, grandma!) supported this no-paid work while a student goal by providing a tiny amount of spending money each month to each grandchild enrolled in college.

Had I not been a third-generation college student, do I think I would have graduated from college? I like to think so, but the odds would not have been in my favor.

I think my perspective on the importance of parental socialization regarding college crystallized as a graduate student. I did become a second-generation graduate student and first-generation doctorate student. But it was my grandma who had the Master’s degree, not my parents. In other words, graduate school was a world that my parents did not know. And after completing a graduate degree, I know exactly how to advise my own daughter on navigating graduate school. There are a number of things I understand about graduate school now that I am on the other side of it that I wish I had known and understood before I started graduate school. If you have teachers who are willing to share their graduate school experience, listen to them and ask them lots of questions.

Having college-educated parents, does not just mean a likely higher household income growing up, but also helps socialize children into future roles as college students themselves (thanks, mom and dad!).

Dig Deeper:

  1. In what ways have your parents socialized you into your role as a college student? Think of as many examples as you can.
  2. Read this article about first-generation college students. In what ways are first-generation college students particularly challenged compared to second- or third-generation college students?
  3. Besides income and education background of parents, what are other factors related to college graduation rates?
  4. What is the college graduation rate for your college or university? What factors contribute to the college graduation rate on your campus? What programs, such as TRIO, does your college have in place to increase college graduation rates?