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Working towards equitable educational outcomes for first-generation college students

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Working towards equitable educational outcomes for first-generation college students
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Ortega, Mari Carmen ( author )
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First-generation college students ( lcsh )
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theses ( marcgt )
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This study explored the ecological factors that prevent first-generation students from completing degree programs as quickly or as often as non-first generation students. Specifically, the academic, financial, cultural and psychological factors that first-generation students must overcome in order to successfully complete their degree programs. This study focused on the lived experiences of first-generation college students that attend CU Denver. The sample of students consisted of six first-generation college students whom had completed at least one semester at CU Denver. This study employed a phenomenological research design, and used face-to-face interviews. Findings demonstrated that pre-collegiate and on-campus programming, has been the defining factor for these student’s persistence and degree completion. Implications for practice and future research include parent specific programming for underserved students, beginning early in the K-12 education system.
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Thesis (M.A.)--University of Colorado Denver, 2017.
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Includes bibliographical references .
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by Mari Carmern Ortega.

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University of Florida
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on1004775938

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Full Text
WORKING TOWARDS EQUITABLE EDUCATIONAL OUTCOMES FOR
FIRST-GENERATION COLLEGE STUDENTS
by
MARI CARMEN ORTEGA B.A., University of Hawaii, 2013
A thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Colorado in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts
Education and Human Development Program
2017


This thesis for the Master of Arts degree by Mari Carmen Ortega has been approved for the Education and Human Development Program by
Ruben P. Viramontez Anguiano, Chair Lisa Forbes Rene Galindo
Date: May 13, 2017
n


Ortega, Mari Carmen (M.A., Education and Human Development Program)
Working Towards Equitable Educational Outcomes for First-Generation College Students Thesis directed by Professor Ruben P. Viramontez Anguiano
ABSTRACT
This study explored the ecological factors that prevent first-generation students from completing degree programs as quickly or as often as non-first generation students. Specifically, the academic, financial, cultural and psychological factors that first-generation students must overcome in order to successfully complete their degree programs. This study focused on the lived experiences of first-generation college students that attend CU Denver. The sample of students consisted of six first-generation college students whom had completed at least one semester at CU Denver. This study employed a phenomenological research design, and used face-to-face interviews. Findings demonstrated that pre-collegiate and on-campus programming, has been the defining factor for these students persistence and degree completion. Implications for practice and future research include parent specific programming for underserved students, beginning early in the K-12 education system.
This form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend its publication.
Approved: Ruben P. Viramontez Anguiano
in


DEDICATION
Para mi abuelos, Antonio y Antonia, con todo mi carino. Because of the many sacrifices and struggles they endured, I have been able to enjoy more opportunities and advantages, than they ever had. I am here and I am educated. I will continue to fight for the millions of people who have struggled in countries far away, and here in the United States, so that their children, our future, can live to their full potential and accomplish all the dreams that they may dream.
...precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. -James Baldwin
IV


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Mi Familia,
Paulo... Thank you for your undying love and support. I never would have had the courage and strength to work at my full potential if it were not for you. You have always let me be me, and helped me to live out all of my crazy dreams! You are and will always be my partner in crime.
Sandra and Company ...My younger, funnier, and smarter sister, since we were kids you have always believed in me, even at times when I did not believe in myself. You have always been honest, loving and supportive of anything that I have ever dreamed of doing. I am so very thankful to have you, Sophia, Ford, Brad, and Linda in my life! I love you all so very much.
My CU Denver Family,
Dr. Ruben, Thank you for helping me survive the thesis process (barely), and challenging me to work harder! I appreciate each and every opportunity that you have given me for both my academic and personal growth. You have challenged me to live up to my full potential, Thank you!
Dr. Kim, Thank you for your never-ending support as my research mentor. Your leadership and guidance re-ignited my love for research and statistics. You impacted not only my career goals, but my own ideas about what I am capable of. I am so grateful for the opportunities that you have let me be a part of, and I am not sure that I will ever be able to thank you enough!
Dr. Forbes, lam so thankful that I had the opportunity to work with you in your classroom, as your Teaching Assistant. You gave me my first taste of teaching in an under grad classroom, and even though I was nervous I was hooked! Iam now working towards becoming a university professor, because of your kindness, guidance, and support. Thank you!
Dr. Galindo, Thank you for taking the time to support me during the thesis process. Your suggestions were invaluable to my study!
Shauna and Larissa, Thank you both for the long hours that you spent with me working on research projects, our theses, bull shitting & gossiping. I cannot even begin to imagine how differently this last year would have been, without you two there to support and commiserate with me. You are both the best, but Shauna is just a tad bit more awesome, because of our many Saturday grocery shopping trips.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
I. INTRODUCTION...............................................................1
Overview..................................................................1
Purpose of Study..........................................................1
Guiding Research Questions................................................1
Significance of Study.....................................................2
Personal Identification of the Topic......................................3
II. LITERATURE REVIEW..........................................................4
Defining First-Generation College Students................................4
First-Generation College Student Demographics.............................6
Barriers to Persistence and Degree Completion.............................7
Academic..............................................................7
Financial.............................................................8
Cultural..............................................................8
Psychological........................................................10
Supports for First-Generation College Students.......................15
Programs Available at CU Denver......................................17
III. PUBLISHABLE MANUSCRIPT....................................................20
Introduction.............................................................21
vi


Literature Review.
22
Demographics..................................................................23
Barriers to persistence and degree completion.................................24
Supports for first-generation college students................................32
Method........................................................................33
Sample.................................................................33
Research design........................................................34
Procedure..............................................................35
Interview Protocol.....................................................35
Data Analysis..........................................................36
Findings......................................................................36
Academic...............................................................36
Financial..............................................................40
Cultural...............................................................41
Psychological..........................................................43
Combination of Factors.................................................45
Familial support and motivation........................................47
Discussion....................................................................49
Strengths and Limitations..............................................50
Implications for policy and practice...................................51
vii


Conclusion
51
References.......................................................53
IV. GLOBAL DISCUSSION................................................57
Implications for policy and practice.............................61
V. GLOBAL CONCLUSION................................................62
REFERENCES.............................................................64
APPENDIX
A. COMIRB Approval Form............................................68
B. Informed Consent Form...........................................69
C. Interview Guide.................................................71
D. Recruitment Email...............................................72
viii


CHAPTER I
INTRODUCTION
Overview
In our society, a college education is seen as a necessity in order to achieve economic success and increase social mobility (Markus, Ryff, Curhan, & Palmersheim, 2004). Attending college, earning a degree, and starting a career, are all parts of the American dream. Unfortunately, for a large number of under-represented students, it will not become a reality (Chen, 2005). For many years, the education reform movement has focused on improving access to higher education institutions for students from under-represented populations such as, low socio-economic status, students of color, and first-generation college students (Chen, 2005). While more of these students are gaining access to higher education, they are not completing their degree programs in a timely manner, or dropping out before completion, at a higher rate than their peers (Chen, 2005). This study will focus specifically on the lived experiences of first-generation college students that attend the University of Colorado Denver.
Purpose of Study
To explore the ecological factors that prevent first-generation students from completing degree programs as quickly or as often as non-first generation students. Specifically, the cultural and psychological factors that first-generation students must overcome in order to successfully complete their degree programs.
Guiding Research Questions
The following are the Guiding Research questions for this study:
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1. What ecological factors, academic and financial, affect persistence and degree completion for first-generation college students?
2. What type of cultural barriers, lack of cultural capital and cultural adaptation, do first-generation college students face in persistence and degree completion?
3. What type of psychological barriers, unmet basic psychological needs and low academic self-esteem, do first-generation college students face in persistence and degree completion?
4. What role does familial support play in motivation for persistence and degree completion for first-generation college students?
Significance of the Study
First-generation college students are arriving on college campuses across the nation in larger numbers than ever before, unfortunately they are not persisting or completing their degrees in a timely fashion in comparison to their continuing-generation peers. In a study conducted by DeAngelo, Franke, Hurtado, Pryor, and Tran (2011), the researchers found that first-generation college students graduation rates lag significantly behind their peers, with 50.2% of first-generation students completing a degree program within six years, compared to their peers at 64.2% (p. 9).
Pyne and Means (2013) state that we must understand more clearly what hybridity and difference mean for students, how they interpret their lives and experiences, and how these perceptions impact persistence, resilience, and self-efficacy at the individual human level (p. 11). It is so much more than a lack of academic preparation and financial resources. We must also recognize and address the cultural and psychological needs that first-generation college students face.
2


Personal Identification of the Topic
I am a first-generation college student. What my family and I did not know about higher education has impeded my educational journey. It has taken me more time and money than my peers to get to where I today. I have stopped completely several times. Only to begin again, and by the grace of some unseen face, I completed my Bachelors degree, and now my Masters degree. Reflecting on this study as a first-generation college student, there was an expectation that I would share some commonalities with these students. I did not realize the deep connection that I would feel towards these students because of our shared lived experiences. Throughout the process, I resonated with so many of their responses. These were ideas and feelings that I had felt throughout my undergraduate journey.
I did not even realize that being a first-generation college student was a subpopulation, until I began my Masters program. Now, that I know what I know, I realize where supports and information would have been beneficial to me. I can now fully understand how being unprepared academically, lacking financial knowledge and higher educational cultural capital, and facing psychological barriers have negatively impacted my educational journey and career path.
For me, it eventually worked out. But what about all other students who were the first in their families to attend college, and did not persist? It makes me sick to think of all that wasted potential. People who may have been great scientists, philosophers, architects, and educators. People that could have brought about many positive changes to our society, and helped our country to compete on a global level. I want to ensure that all underrepresented students can attend colleges and universities, and successfully complete their degrees in order to enjoy the American dream.
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CHAPTER II
LITERATURE REVIEW Defining First-Generation College Students
First-generation college student is a relatively new terminology used to define students who have not historically been counted, nor had their needs specifically addressed by institutions of higher education. Actually, until the 1990s first-generation students were not even counted at institutions of higher education, and today these institutions continue to experience difficulties in defining this sub-population of students. What makes defining this population of students so difficult? To begin with, there is not one standard definition of what constitutes first-generation status. The U.S. Department of Education (1998) defines a First-Generation College Student (FGCS), as an individual whose parent or parents, depending on living situation did not complete a four-year degree. The current literature and institutions of higher education vary greatly in how they define what constitutes a first-generation college student. The most common definitions being: having two parents who have not completed a four-year degree, or having one or both parents who have not attended a two or four-year institution, or having one or both parents have attended some college, but did not complete a degree program (Demetriou & Mann, 2011; Smith, 2015). This lack of a uniform definition has made accurately counting or even studying this population of students difficult.
In order to examine and increase the data available about this population of students in post-secondary education institutions, the National Center for Educational Statistics conducted the National Education Longitudinal Study in 1988 (NELS:88). This study used a nationally representative sample of 8th graders from across the United States, that tracked this cohort of students from middle school, through high school, and into adulthood, to examine
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their career and work outcomes (Chen, 2005). The study consisted of student, parent, teacher, and school self-report questionnaires. The questionnaires were designed to collect information about a wide range of topics, including the students and parents race and ethnicity, languages and religion practiced at home, parents occupation and level of education, and the students educational and occupational goals (Ingels, Abraham, Karr, Spencer, & Frankel, 1990). This study was the first of its kind to measure educational outcomes for a wide variety of students, and is the framework used today for current research and future studies. Davis (2010) states that, even though this study is more than 10 years old, researchers investigating this subject still regard it as foundational groundwork for establishing national statistics (p. 11).
Chen (2005) used the data collected from this study to examine the majors and course taking patterns of first-generation students and to compare their post-secondary experiences and outcomes with those students whose parents went to college (p. iii). The student data was separated into two groups for comparison: students whom neither parent had completed a bachelors degree; and students who had at least one parent who had completed a bachelors or advanced degree. The data produced from this study was startling, because it showed that FGCS were less likely to attend college within eight years of high school completion, when compared to continuing-generation college students (CGCS), those of which who had at least one parent who attained at a bachelors degree or higher. Approximately 43% of FGCS that entered post-secondary education left without a degree, while only 24% completed a bachelors degree program. These statistics are alarming when compared to CGCS, approximately 68% completed a bachelors degree program, while only 20% left without a degree (Chen, 2005). Despite improvements in the rates of college
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admission for FGCS, degree completion and persistence continue to be a challenge. Clearly, there is still work to be done here.
First-Generation College Student Demographics
The demographics of the FGCS population is not homogeneous. It includes students from varied socioeconomic status, and diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. This subpopulation of students tends to be made up of predominantly students of color, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, students who speak a language other than English at home, and students who pursue higher education to assist their families (Chen, 2005; Engle, Bermeo, & OBrien, 2006; McCoy, 2014). There is an overlap in the demographics of this population of students which combines the most under-represented student populations in higher education, these sub-populations are associated with lower rates of college attendance and degree attainment (Engle, 2007). The demographic and enrollment characteristics of first-generation college students combine to create conditions that lower the chances that these students will go to and graduate from college (Engle, 2007, p. 26). This intersection of demographic factors puts FGCS at a disadvantage relative to their peers with regard to retention, especially during the crucial first year of enrollment, and degree attainment
(Engle et al., 2006, p. 14). Ward, Siegel, Davenport & Ebooks (2013) bring up a good point when discussing FGCS demographics, it is important to remember that, as with any student subculture, not all first-generation students share the same characteristics or experiences, and not all enter college in need of targeted support (p.l 1).
Examination of the current literature shows commonalties in the needs and barriers that need to be addressed in order to improve degree completion and persistence of FGCS.
6


These ecological factors can be divided into four categories: academic, financial, cultural and psychological.
Barriers to Persistence and Degree Completion
Academic needs. These barriers are discussed in the current literature and consist of academic preparation, lower educational aspirations, and lower academic self-esteem. Students whose parents have not completed a bachelors degree tend to be less prepared academically for a post-secondary education, score lower on college entrance exams, and lack important study and time management skills (Engle et al., 2006). Engle (2007) states that, first-generation students access to and success in higher education is directly related to their parents educational level (p.27). The literature shows that this is a two-fold problem, students need a rigorous high school curriculum that includes advanced math, and college preparatory classes, but lack parental knowledge of what is necessary to be successful in college, and limited course availability in schools that serve this population (Engle et al., 2006, p. 15).
Most scholars agree that by eighth grade students should begin forming their expectations about educational and occupational goals. The data from the (NELS:88) study showed that, by twelfth grade only about 53% of FGCS expected to earn a bachelors degree compared to nearly 90% of their peers (Engle et al., 2006, p. 15). Current research shows that one of the most significant factors affecting whether students aspire to attend college is parental and teacher support and encouragement (Engle, 2007). Unfortunately, FGCS report feeling that they lack parental and teacher support and encouragement. Perhaps their parents lack of exposure to post-secondary education makes it difficult to appreciate the
7


social and economic benefits of attaining a college degree, or understand the cost associated with attending (Engle et al., 2006).
Financial needs. First-generation students tend to come from working-class and low socioeconomic backgrounds that lack financial resources to pay for post-secondary education, when compared to continuing-generation students. This typically means that FGCS must work in order to pay for their educational costs (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Stephens, Fryberg, Markus, Johnson & Covarrubias, 2012; Ward et al., 2012), usually work more hours than their CGCS peers (Engle et al., 2006; Engle 2007, Ward et al., 2012), tend to schedule classes around work schedules, spending less continuous time on campus, interacting with faculty or peers (Engle, 2007; Stephens et al., 2012), and are more likely to attend classes only part-time and discontinuously while working full-time (Engle, 2007). With the sky-rocketing cost of a college education, financial aid is of great concern for all students. In the case of first-generation students, getting information about financial aid, making ends meet with awards given, and balancing work hours with study hours, was especially important (Engle, 2006).
Cultural needs. When discussing culture, I am not referencing the students heritage
culture, I am referencing the culture of higher education institutions. These barriers are
discussed in the current literature and consist of lack of cultural capital, cultural adaptation,
and in some cases, culture shock. Cultural capital is a term that appears many times in the
current literature, Ward et al (2012) define it as:
Parents transmit cultural capital to their children by passing along information and beliefs needed to succeed in the school environment. For college students, cultural capital is not acquired in a short time (in the manner that artifacts or money might be); rather it is acquired over time as a result of exposure to the experiences, attitudes, and language of the parents (p. 6).
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In a nutshell, parents who have not earned a bachelors degree lack the experience and skills to understand the higher educational process, navigate the admissions process, and understand the time and financial constraints, in order to improve their students college going experiences and educational outcomes (Engle et al, 2006; McCoy, 2014; Ward et al. 2012). Research shows that FGCS experience more difficulty navigating the bureaucratic aspects of academic life (i.e. registering for classes, meeting with advisors, choosing a major) due to that lack of cultural capital. (Engle, 2007; McCoy, 2014; Ward et al., 2012).
Cultural adaptation is defined in various contexts, as the process and time it takes a person to assimilate to a new culture. The transition to higher education is challenging and stressful for all students. This transition can be even more difficult for FGCS who attend classes at an institution that is demographically different than their high school campus.
Engle (2007) states that, first-generation students often experience discontinuities between the culture of their families and communities and the culture that exists on college campuses, which they often describe as worlds apart (p. 35). Perhaps this is because student whose parents are college educated tend to experience college as a continuation of family traditions, whereas FGCS are breaking family tradition by being the first to go to college (Engle, 2007). First-generation college students can experience culture shock, isolation, alienation, discrimination, and view the campus environment and faculty as less supportive (Davis,
2010; Engle, 2007; Jehangir, 2010; Stephens et al., 2012). What is considered normative college behaviors are foreign to students who have had little or no exposure to this culture, making them feel uncertain about the right way to act as college students and begin to question whether they belong or can be successful in a college setting (Stephens et al., 2012, p. 3). This cultural incongruence impedes students from fully participating and benefiting
9


from the college experience. This is represented in FGCS lower first year GPAs, credits completed, and number of courses repeated (Chen, 2005).
Psychological needs. The theoretical frameworks used in this study to analyze first-generation college students psychological needs are Maslows Hierarchy of Needs theory, and Deci and Ryans Self-Determination theory. These two human motivation theories discuss the importance of having basic psychological needs met, before a student is capable of reaching their full academic potential (Maslow, 1973; Ryan & Deci, 2000). This is vital when discussing the common psychological factors that first-generation students face when entering institutions of higher education, and ensuring that their needs are met in order to improve persistence and degree completion.
Maslows hierarchy of needs. In the 1950s, psychologist Abraham Maslow created a human motivation theory which outlined the hierarchy of basic psychological and self-fulfillment needs, that individuals must meet in order to reach ones full potential (Abraham, 2016). This theory was considered to be an optimistic approach to human behavior that emphasized developing ones full potential (Abraham, 2016, p. 1). Maslow, one of the founding fathers of humanistic psychology, which believed human behavior is not determined by childhood events or conditioning but instead an individuals power to grow and change in the present (Abraham, 2016, p.l) The hierarchy of needs is represented graphically as a pyramid, consisting of five levels. The levels consist of physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. In order for a person to become fully self-actualized, or realize their full potential, their needs must be met at each level. Essentially, this theory states that in order for an individual to realize their full potential they must have mastered their self-esteem needs, have a sense of belonging and community, feel a sense of
10


safety which lacks anxiety, and have an environment that meets their physiological needs (Abraham, 2016). Taormina and Gao (2013), operationally define these needs as, a lack of something that is essential to an organisms existence or well-being (p. 156).
This theory is particularly important when discussing first-generation college students and the barriers they face in persistence and degree completion in higher education. The goal of our educational journey is to realize our full-potential and become global citizens. First-generation college students cannot realize their full educational potential, until their basic psychological needs are met.
The first level of Maslows pyramid is the Physiological level, the needs include basic human needs such as, food, water, sleep, and warmth (Maslow, 1973). The literature shows that FGCS tend to come from lower SES and therefore must work more hours while attending classes (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Stephens et al., 2012; Ward et al., 2012). This means that FGCS spend less time on-campus, are more tired when they are on campus, are less engaged in campus activities, and lack the information to find the resources available to them (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007). When first-generation students do not have their basic physiological needs met, they will be unable to successfully move onto the next level.
The second level of Maslows pyramid is the Safety level, it is defined as, preference for some kind of undisrupted routine or rhythm.. .a predictable, orderly world (Maslow, 1973, p. 158). This sense of safety is based on the persons lack of anxiousness, caused by unreliable, unsafe or unpredictable environments (Maslow, 1973). The literature shows that FGCS tend to experience anxiety in the higher education environment, and not feel validated in their experiences, because of the lack of cultural capital (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007;
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McCoy, 2014; Ward et al., 2012). If first-generation students do not have their basic safety needs met, they will be unable to successfully move onto the next level.
The third level of Maslows pyramid is the Belonging level, the needs in this category stem from wanting love and affection and belongingness (Maslow, 1973). These needs include building community and relations with people in general (Maslow, 1973). The literature shows that FGCS tend to lack a sense of connection or community to their university campuses (Davis, 2010; Engle, 2007; Jehangir,2010; Stephens et al.,2012). This is due to the disconnect from their home and school environments, and their lack of their own academic identity. If first-generation students do not have their basic love & belongingness needs met, they will be unable to successfully move onto the next level.
The fourth level of Maslows pyramid is the Esteem level, it is defined as, a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or selfesteem, and for the esteem of others.. .based on real capacity, achievement and respect from others (Maslow, 1973, p. 162). The literature shows that FGCS commonly lack a high academic self-esteem, and suffer from achievement guilt. First-generation college students lack academic self-esteem, meaning that they have less confidence in their abilities to succeed in college, even with the same level of preparation as CGCS (Engle, 2007). Even when FGCS are academically qualified to attend a post-secondary institution, they choose to attend 2-year instead of 4-year institutions, and less likely to attend competitive institutions (Ward et al., 2013; Engle et al., 2006). Chen (2005), reports that FGCS enroll in 2-year institutions at 54.9%, compared to CGCS at 23.3%, and in 4-year institutions at 40.3% compared to CGCS at 76.3%. Attending less selective two-year or four-year institutions, or for-profit institutions can have a negative effect on a students chances of earning a degree,
12


as these institutions tend to have lower graduation rates (Engle at al., 2006). The goal of our educational journey is to realize our full academic potential and become global citizens. First-generation students cannot realize their full educational potential until their basic psychological needs are met. When all of these needs have been met, they can reach their full academic potential, or become self-actualized. Maslow defines self-actualization as, the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him/her to become actualized in what he/she is potentially (Maslow, 1973, p. 162).
Self-determination theory. Self-Determination Theory (SDT), is an approach to human motivation and personality that uses traditional empirical methods while employing organismic metatheory that highlights the importance of humans evolved inner resources for personality development and behavioral self-regulation (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68). Research guided by this theory has identified three innate psychological needs -competence, autonomy, and relatedness these basic psychological needs are necessary for optimal learning, growth positive constructive social development and personal well-being (p. 68). These basic psychological needs are defined by Ryan and Deci (2000) as, (a) autonomy is the manifestation of independence and self-sufficiency in ones behavior, (b) competence is a need fulfilled by mastering a concept or activity and (c) relatedness involves a sense of belonging or connection to something internal or external (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68). These needs are not only essential to individuals, but essential to the nature of motivation (Trevino & DeFreitas, 2013, p. 295). Similar to the needs posited by Maslow, these basic psychological needs, specify the necessary conditions for psychological growth, integrity, and well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 227). This theory is useful in analyzing the first-generation college going experience, specifically as it relates to
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persistence and degree completion. First-generation students must feel competent, autonomous, and related to their college experience in order to build intrinsic motivation, which will help them to be more successful at persisting and completing a degree (Trevino & DeFreitas, 2014). Self-determination theory, examines how intrinsic motivation can positively influence academic achievement but it also looks at factors that can decrease intrinsic motivation (Trevino & DeFreitas, 2014, p. 295). Intrinsic motivation is defined by Ryan & Deci (2000) as the, natural inclination toward assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest, and exploration that is so essential to cognitive and social development and that represents a principal source of enjoyment and vitality throughout life (p. 70). Intrinsic motivation is linked to positive academic outcomes, lower anxiety, higher retention rates, and higher achievement of performance goals (Prospero, Russell, & Vohra-Gupta, 2012, p.
100). Although as humans, we are born with these natural inclinations research has found that it is not enough, these needs to be maintained and supported, or they will be diminished by various non-supportive conditions (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 70). For first-generation students, these conditions are the ecological factors that prevent them from persisting and completing their degrees. Deci & Ryan (2000) discuss these natural inclinations, specifically as it relates to culture,
the degree to which people are able to actively synthesize cultural demands, values, and regulations and to incorporate them into the self is in large part a function of the degree to which fulfillment of the basic psychological needs is supported as they engage in the relevant behaviors (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 238).
In order for first-generation students to be successful in higher education they need to feel
competent, autonomous, and related to their campus community (Trevino & DeFreitas,
2014).
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Supports for First-Generation College Students
The literature identified some crucial areas to improve persistence and degree completion for FGCS. These include: raising aspirations of college, navigating the college admission process, easing the transition to college, preparing students academically for college, educating parents about the college process, helping students manage the financial aspects of college, and developing personal relationships with students (Engle et al. 2006; Engle, 2007; Rice et al., 2016).
Raising aspirations of college. The literature shows that by raising academic and occupational aspirations at or before the 8th grade, improves the chances that students will be successful in their persistence and degree completion at higher education institutions (Smith, 2015). This process needs to include both the student, and their parents. Engle (2007) states that, parental involvement is the most important factor affecting students aspirations and plans for college (p. 39). Since FGCS parents lack the cultural capital of successfully completing a four-year degree program, they too must learn the importance of higher education, how to prepare academically and financially, and how to apply, attend and succeed (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Falcon, 2015; Rice et al., 2016, Ward et al., 2012). Parental involvement then is the first step and the guiding force for promoting FGCS success at higher education institutions.
Navigating the college admission process. This section includes navigating the college admission process, educating parents about the college process, and helping students manage the financial aspects of college. Since, FGCS cannot rely on their familys cultural capital to navigate the college admission process, and often times cannot rely on their high-school counselors either, due to high student-counselor ratios, they are left without the
15


resources to successful manage these bureaucratic processes (Engle et al., 2006; Falcon,
2015; Rice et al., 2016). The literature has shown that pre-college programs have been the most beneficial in supporting FGCS throughout the entire process (Engle et al. 2006).
In 1998 the U.S. Department of Education amended the Higher Education Act of 1965, to include outreach and student services programs for underrepresented students. These programs specifically serve low-income, first-generation, and students with disabilities as they progress from middle school through high school, and onto college (U.S. Dept, of Ed., 1998). These services are called TRIO programs, and include Talent Search, and Upward Bound. These programs provide services that aim to increase college awareness and preparation, counseling, tutoring, mentoring, and information regarding the college admissions process (Falcon, 2015). These programs begin in middle school and continue through to college, they have generally shown a positive impact on the educational outcomes of first-generation students.
These federally funded programs are not only for undergraduate studies, the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program was created to provide underrepresented college students with effective preparation for doctoral study. The McNair Program awards grants to institutions of higher education to provide participants with educationally enriching scholastic experiences that help prepare them to enter graduate school and to pursue and complete doctoral degrees (U.S. Dept, of Ed., 1998).
Easing the initial transition to college. While this transition came be stressful, and difficult for all college students, it seems to be more so for FGCS. These students make complex academic, social, and cultural transitions to college life (Engle, 2007; McCoy, 2014; Pyne & Means, 2013). In some cases, FGCS will need remediation coursework to ensure
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that they are academically prepared (Pyne & Means, 2013; Stephens et al., 2015). Early support or bridge programs can offer FGCS assistance with socializing to their college campuses, academic requirements, and time management and study skills (Engle, 2007). Most higher education campuses house offices for Student Support Services and Educational Opportunity Centers, these offices are funded federally and offer academic, and social supports for students.
Increasing exposure to and engagement with the college environment. Since FGCS spend less time on campus due to work, and family obligations, they tend to be less engaged in the college experience (Engle et al., 2006; McCoy, 2014; Pyne & Means, 2013; Rice et al, 2016; Stephens et al., 2012). Numerous research studies have shown a direct correlation to school engagement and positive educational outcomes. Engle (2007) suggests that institutions of higher education need to remove the financial barriers that keep FGCS from fully immersing themselves into the campus environment. One way to do this is to offer additional resources, and opportunities for work-study, thus enabling FGCS additional time on campus interacting with peers, faculty, and extra-curricular activities (Engle, 2007). This level of socialization is of the upmost importance, when FGCS have had limited exposure to peers from different cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds (Rice et al., 2016). By connecting FGCS with their college campus it improves their academic achievement, social functioning, and psychological health (Rice et al., 2016).
Programs and Supports available at CU Denver
The University of Colorado Denver defines a first-generation student as, a student whom neither parent has received a four-year degree. Students self-identify as first-generation on their university enrollment forms. The university offers many resources and
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supports specifically for first-generation students, their parents, and their families. These Programs are funded under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, these programs include the Parent and Family Program, the Educational Opportunity Programs Office, and the TRIO Student Support Services.
Parent and family program. This programming is relatively new to the CU Denver campus, it was established two years ago, and is currently being reviewed to ensure it is reaching all students needing resources. Currently the program contacts newly enrolled first-generation students and offers them and their parents an orientation in Spanish and English, including a guidebook with important resources and contact information for different on-campus departments and offices. The program also hosts prep-week programming that is offered the week before the beginning of Spring and Fall semesters. The events planned during this week include: a student panel, where returning students can answer the questions of incoming students; workshops about study skills, time management, course selection and financial literacy; first-generation family banquet for students and their families; a new student convocation, where students and parents can meet administrators, faculty, classmates, and their families. Throughout the semester students receive email updates about upcoming events and information, as well as a monthly newsletter with tips, and important resources.
Educational Opportunity Programs Office. According to the Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) website their mission statement is to, provide services: (a) to support underrepresented students and (b) to promote a diverse and inclusive campus for all students, faculty, and staff (2017). The CU Denver EOP office consists of American Indian Student Services (AISS), Asian American Student Services (AASS), Black Student Services (BSS) and Latin@ Student Services (LSS). The EOP office offers sponsorship of active
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student organizations; cultural events and activities to enhance students cross-culture understanding, self-concept, and cultural identity; peer mentorship, advocacy, and tutoring; and professional development and leadership opportunities.
TRIO Student Support Services. The TRIO SSS is a federally funded program that serves 160 students each school year. According to the TRIO SSS website their mission statement is, a holistic student development program that is dedicated to helping each student reach his or her full academic potential (2017). The TRIO SSS office offers: academic support and guidance, advocacy and personal support, peer mentoring, tutorial assistance, career preparation, assistance with financial aid, graduate school preparation, leadership development, cultural and community events, and a computer lab and study area. TRIO programs are meant to help students overcome class, social and cultural barriers to higher education. CU Denver offers its students many opportunities for on-campus programming, it also is connected with local school districts providing pre-collegiate programming to high school students.
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CHAPTER III
PUBLISHABLE MANUSCRIPT
Working Towards Equitable Educational Outcomes for First-Generation College Students
Mari Carmen Ortega, Masters Candidate School of Education and Human Development University of Colorado Denver
Abstract
This study explored the ecological factors that prevent first-generation students from completing degree programs as quickly or as often as non-first generation students. Specifically, the cultural and psychological factors that first-generation students must overcome in order to successfully complete their degree programs. This study focused specifically on the lived experiences of first-generation college students that attend the University of Colorado Denver. The sample consisted of six first-generation college students whom had completed at least one semester at the University of Colorado Denver. This study employed a phenomenological research design. Findings demonstrated that pre-collegiate and on-campus programming, has been the defining factor for these students persistence and degree completion. Implications for practice and future research including parent specific programming for underserved students, beginning early in the K-12 education system. KEYWORDS: first-generation college student, cultural capital, familial support, persistence
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Introduction
In American society, a college education is seen as a necessity in order to achieve economic success and increase social mobility (Markus, Ryff, Curhan, & Palmersheim,
2004). Attending college, earning a degree, and starting a career, are commonly considered parts of the American dream. Unfortunately, for a large number of under-represented students, that dream will not become a reality (Chen, 2005). For many years, the education reform movement has focused on improving access to higher education institutions for students from under-represented populations such as, low socio-economic status, students of color, and first-generation college students (Chen, 2005). While more of these students are gaining access to higher education, they are not completing their degree programs in a timely manner, or dropping out before completion, at a higher rate than their peers (Chen, 2005).
First-generation college students are arriving on college campuses across the nation in larger numbers than ever before, unfortunately many are not persisting or completing their degrees in a timely fashion in comparison to their continuing-generation peers (Engle, 2007). In a study conducted by DeAngelo, Franke, Hurtado, Pryor, and Tran (2011), the researchers found that first-generation college students graduation rates lag significantly behind their peers, with 50.2% of first-generation students completing a degree program within six years, compared to their peers at 64.2% (p. 9).
Pyne and Means (2013) stated that we must understand more clearly what hybridity and difference mean for students, how they interpret their lives and experiences, and how these perceptions impact persistence, resilience, and self-efficacy at the individual human level (p. 11). Many believe the lower success rates are so much more than a lack of
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academic preparation and financial resources. We must also recognize and address the cultural and psychological needs that first-generation college students face.
Literature Review
The term first-generation college student is a relatively new terminology that is used to define students who have not historically been counted, nor had their needs specifically addressed by institutions of higher education. Institutions of higher education were not required to track the number of first-generation students until the early 2000s. The U.S. Department of Education (1998) defines a First-Generation College Student (FGCS), as an individual whose parent or parents, depending on living situation did not complete a four-year degree. In order to examine and increase the data available regarding this population of students in post-secondary education institutions, the National Center for Educational Statistics conducted the National Education Longitudinal Study in 1988 (NELS:88). This study used a nationally representative sample of 8th graders from across the United States, then tracked this cohort of students from middle school, through high school, and into adulthood, in order to examine their career and work outcomes (Chen, 2005). The study consisted of student, parent, teacher, and school self-report questionnaires. The questionnaires were designed to collect information about a wide range of topics, including the students and parents race and ethnicity, languages and religion practiced at home, parents occupation and level of education, and the students educational and occupational goals (Ingels, Abraham, Karr, Spencer, & Frankel, 1990). This study was the first of its kind to measure educational outcomes for a wide variety of students, and is the framework used today for current research and future studies. Davis (2010) stated that, even though this
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study is more than 10 years old, researchers investigating this subject still regard it as foundational groundwork for establishing national statistics (p. 11).
In another study, Chen (2005) used the data collected from the previously mentioned study to examine the enrollment characteristics of first-generation students and to compare their college-going experiences with their non-first generation peers. The student data was separated into two groups for comparison: (a) students whom neither parent had completed a bachelors degree; and (b) students who had at least one parent who had completed a bachelors or advanced degree. The data produced from this study were startling because it showed that FGCS were less likely to attend college within eight years of high school completion when compared to continuing-generation college students (CGCS), those of which had at least one parent who attained a bachelors degree or higher. Approximately 43% of FGCS that entered post-secondary education left without a degree, while only 24% completed a bachelors degree program. These statistics are alarming when compared to CGCS, approximately 68% completed a bachelors degree program, while only 20% left without a degree (Chen, 2005). Despite improvements in the rates of college admission for FGCS, degree completion and persistence continue to be a challenge. Clearly, there is still a need for additional research, and educational programming in both our K-12 schools and higher education institutions.
Demographics of First-Generation College Students
The demographics of the FGCS population is not homogeneous. It includes students from varied socioeconomic status, and diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. This subpopulation of students tends to be made up of predominantly students of color, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, students who speak a language other than English at
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home, and students who pursue higher education to assist their families (Chen, 2005; Engle, Bermeo, & OBrien, 2006; McCoy, 2014). There is an overlap in the demographics of this population of students which combines the most under-represented student populations in higher education, these sub-populations are associated with lower rates of college attendance and degree attainment (Engle, 2007). The demographic and enrollment characteristics of first-generation college students combine to create conditions that lower the chances that these students will go to and graduate from college (Engle, 2007, p. 26). This intersection of demographic factors creates barriers for FGCS in regard to persistence, and degree completion (Engle et al., 2006). As with any population of students, not all students experience the same phenomenon, or need the same type of programming (Ward, Siegel, Davenport & Ebooks, 2013). Examination of the current literature shows commonalties in the needs and barriers that need to be addressed in order to improve degree completion and persistence of FGCS. These ecological factors can be divided into four categories academic, financial, cultural, and psychological.
Barriers to Persistence and Degree Completion
Academic needs. These barriers are discussed in the current literature and consist of academic preparation, lower educational aspirations, and lower academic self-esteem. Students whose parents have not completed a bachelors degree tend to be less prepared academically for a post-secondary education, score lower on college entrance exams, and lack important study and time management skills (Engle et al., 2006). Engle (2007) stated that, first-generation students access to and success in higher education is directly related to their parents educational level (p.27). The literature shows that this is a two-fold problem, students need a rigorous high school education including college preparatory, and advanced
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math and science courses, and lack parental knowledge of what is necessary to be successful in college (Engle et al., 2006).
Most scholars agree that by 8th grade students should begin forming their expectations about educational and occupational goals. The data from the (NELS:88) study showed that, by twelfth grade only about 53% of FGCS expected to earn a bachelors degree compared to nearly 90% of their peers (Engle et al., 2006, p. 15). Research demonstrates that one of the most significant factors affecting whether students aspire to attend college is parental and teacher support and encouragement (Engle, 2007). Unfortunately, FGCS report feeling that they lack these exact elements of support. Perhaps their parents lack of exposure to post-secondary education makes it difficult to appreciate the social and economic benefits of attaining a college degree, or understand the cost associated with attending (Engle et al., 2006).
Financial needs. First-generation students tend to come from working-class and low socioeconomic backgrounds that lack financial resources to pay for post-secondary education. This typically means that FGCS must work in order to pay for their educational costs (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Stephens, Fryberg, Markus, Johnson & Covarrubias, 2012; Ward et al., 2012), they must usually work more hours than their CGCS peers (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Ward et al., 2012), they tend to schedule classes around work schedules, spending less continuous time on campus, interacting with faculty or peers (Engle, 2007;Stephens et al., 2012), and they are more likely to attend classes only part-time and discontinuously while working full-time (Engle, 2007). With the sky-rocketing cost of a college education, financial aid is of great concern for all students. In the case of first-
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generation students, getting information about financial aid, making ends meet with awards given, and balancing work hours with study hours, was especially important (Engle, 2006).
Cultural Needs. Culture, in this sense, is not referencing the students heritage
culture, instead this term references the culture of higher education institutions. These
barriers are discussed in the current literature and consist of lack of cultural capital, cultural
adaptation, and in some cases, culture shock. Cultural capital is a term that appears many
times within the literature, Ward et al (2012) defined it as:
Parents transmit cultural capital to their children by passing along information and beliefs needed to succeed in the school environment. For college students, cultural capital is not acquired in a short time (in the manner that artifacts or money might be); rather it is acquired over time as a result of exposure to the experiences, attitudes, and language of the parents (p. 6).
Essentially, parents who have not earned a bachelors degree lack the experience and skills to
understand the higher educational process, navigate the admissions process, and understand
the time and financial constraints, in order to improve their students college going
experiences and educational outcomes (Engle et al., 2006; McCoy, 2014; Ward et al., 2012).
Research demonstrates thatFGCS experience more difficulty navigating the bureaucratic
aspects of academic life (i.e., registering for classes, meeting with advisors, choosing a
major) due to that lack of cultural capital (Engle, 2007; McCoy, 2014; Ward et al., 2012).
Another facet to consider when discussing cultural barriers is cultural adaptation. Cultural adaptation is defined in various contexts, as the process and time it takes a person to assimilate to a new culture. The transition to higher education is challenging and stressful for all students. This transition can be even more difficult for FGCS who attend classes at an institution that is demographically different than their high school campus. Engle (2007) stated that, first-generation students often experience discontinuities between the culture of
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their families and communities and the culture that exists on college campuses, which they often describe as worlds apart (p. 35). Perhaps this is because students whose parents are college educated tend to experience college as a continuation of family traditions, whereas FGCS are breaking family tradition by being the first to go to college (Engle, 2007).
First-generation college students can experience culture shock, isolation, alienation, discrimination, and view the campus environment and faculty as less supportive (Davis,
2010; Engle, 2007; Jehangir, 2010; Stephens et al., 2012). What is considered normative college behaviors are foreign to students who have had little or no exposure to this culture, making them feel uncertain about the right way to act as college students and begin to question whether they belong or can be successful in a college setting (Stephens et al., 2012, p. 3). This cultural incongruence can impede students from fully participating and benefiting from the college experience. This is represented in FGCS lower first year GPAs, credits completed, and number of courses repeated (Chen, 2005).
Psychological Needs. The theoretical frameworks used in the current study to analyze first-generation college students psychological needs was Maslows Hierarchy of Needs theory (1943) and Deci and Ryans Self-Determination theory (2000). These two human motivation theories discuss the importance of having basic psychological needs met, before a student is capable of reaching their full academic potential (Maslow, 1973; Ryan & Deci, 2000). This is vital when discussing the common psychological factors that first-generation students face when entering institutions of higher education, and ensuring that their needs are met in order to improve persistence and degree completion.
Maslows hierarchy of needs. In Abraham Maslow (1950) created a human motivation theory where he outlined the hierarchy of basic psychological and self-fulfillment
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needs, that individuals must meet in order to reach ones full potential (Abraham, 2016). The hierarchy of needs is represented graphically as a pyramid, consisting of five levels. The levels consist of physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. In order for a person to become fully self-actualized, or realize their full potential, their needs must be met at each level. If an individuals needs are not met at the basic level, they cannot focus on the next level. Taormina and Gao (2013), operationally define these needs as, a lack of something that is essential to an organisms existence or well-being (p. 156). Essentially, this theory states that in order for an individual to realize their full potential they must have mastered their self-esteem needs, have a sense of belonging and community, feel a sense of safety which lacks anxiety, and have an environment that meets their physiological needs (Abraham, 2016).
This theory is particularly important when discussing first-generation college students and the barriers they face in persistence and degree completion in higher education. The first level of needs are physiological needs. These needs include basic human needs such as, food, water, sleep, and warmth (Maslow, 1973). The literature shows that FGCS tend to come from lower SES and therefore must work more hours while attending classes in order to provide for their most basic human needs (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Stephens et al., 2012; Ward et al., 2012). This means that FGCS spend less time on-campus, are more fatigued when they are on campus, are less engaged in campus activities (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007).
The second level of needs are the safety needs. These needs include the preference for some kind of undisrupted routine or rhythm.. .a predictable, orderly world (Maslow, 1973, p. 158). This sense of safety is based on the persons lack of anxiousness, caused by
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unreliable, unsafe or unpredictable environments (Maslow, 1973). The literature indicates that FGCS tend to experience anxiety in the higher education environment, and not feel validated in their experiences, because of their lack of cultural capital (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; McCoy, 2014; Ward et al., 2012).
The third level of needs are belonging needs. These needs include building community and relations with people in general (Maslow, 1973). The literature shows that first-generation college students tend to lack a sense of connection or community to their university campuses (Davis, 2010; Engle, 2007; Jehangir, 2010; Stephens et al., 2012). This lack of connection is due in part to the disconnect from their home and school environments, and the lack of their own academic identity.
The fourth level of needs are esteem need. These needs are, a desire for a stable, firmly based, high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others.. .based on real capacity, achievement and respect from others (Maslow, 1973, p. 162). The literature revealed that FGCS commonly lack a high academic selfesteem, meaning that they have less confidence in their abilities to succeed in college, even with the same level of preparation as CGCS (Engle, 2007). Even when FGCS are academically qualified to attend a post-secondary institution, many choose to attend two-year instead of four-year institutions, and are less likely to attend competitive institutions (Engle et al., 2006; Ward et al., 2013). Chen (2005) reported that FGCS enroll in two-year institutions at 54.9%, compared to CGCS at 23.3%, and in four-year institutions at 40.3% compared to CGCS at 76.3%. Attending less selective two-year or four-year institutions, or for-profit institutions can have a negative effect on a students chances of earning a degree, as these institutions tend to have lower graduation rates (Engle et al., 2006). Less selective
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institutions have lower academic requirements for entry. These students tend to require additional study skills, and take more remedial courses. This greatly increases the amount of time required to complete a degree program, which may leas many students become frustrated and drop out without completing their degree program.
A primary goal of our educational journey is to realize our full educational potential and become global citizens. First-generation college students cannot realize their full educational potential until their basic psychological needs are met. Maslow defines self-actualization as, the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him/her to become actualized in what he/she is potentially (Maslow, 1973, p. 162). When all of these needs have been met, they can reach their full academic potential, or become self-actualized.
Self-determination theory. Self-Determination Theory (SDT), is a human motivation theory that highlights the importance of humans evolved inner resources for personality development and behavioral self-regulation (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 68). Research guided by this theory has identified three innate psychological needs competence, autonomy, and relatedness these basic psychological needs are necessary for optimal learning, growth positive constructive social development and personal well-being (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p.
68). Ryan and Deci (2000) defined the elements of this theory as follows: (a) autonomy is, a manifestation of independence and self-sufficiency in ones behavior, (b) competence is a need fulfilled by mastering a concept or activity and (c) relatedness is involving a sense of belonging or connection to something internal or external (p. 68). Similarly to the needs posited by Maslows ideas, these basic psychological needs, specify the necessary conditions for psychological growth, integrity, and well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 227). This theory is useful in analyzing the first-generation college student experience, specifically
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as it relates to persistence and degree completion. First-generation students must feel competent, autonomous, and related to their college experience in order to build intrinsic motivation, which will help them to be more successful at persisting and completing a degree (Trevino & DeFreitas, 2014). Intrinsic motivation is defined by Ryan and Deci (2000) as the, natural inclination toward assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest, and exploration that is so essential to cognitive and social development and that represents a principal source of enjoyment and vitality throughout life (p. 70). Self-determination theory, examines how intrinsic motivation can positively influence academic achievement but it also looks at factors that can decrease intrinsic motivation (Trevino & DeFreitas, 2014, p. 295). Intrinsic motivation is linked to positive academic outcomes, lower anxiety, higher retention rates, and higher achievement of performance goals (Prospero, Russell, & Vohra-Gupta, 2012, p. 100). Although as humans, we are born with these natural inclinations researchers believe that it is not enough, these needs to be maintained and supported, or they will be diminished by various non-supportive conditions (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 70). For first-generation students these non-supportive conditions are the ecological factors (discussed above): academic, financial, cultural and psychological, that prevent them from persisting and completing their degrees. Deci and Ryan (2000) discuss these natural inclinations, specifically as it relates to culture:
the degree to which people are able to actively synthesize cultural demands, values, and regulations and to incorporate them into the self is in large part a function of the degree to which fulfillment of the basic psychological needs is supported as they engage in the relevant behaviors (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 238).
In order for first-generation students to be successful in higher education they need to feel
competent, autonomous, and related to their campus community (Trevino & DeFreitas,
2014).
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Supports for first-generation college students
The literature identified some crucial areas to improve persistence and degree completion for first-generation college students, which include: raising aspirations of college, navigating the college admission process, easing the transition to college, preparing students academically for college, educating parents about the college process, helping students manage the financial aspects of college, and developing personal relationships with students (Engle et al. 2006; Engle, 2007; Rice et al., 2016).
Improving persistence and degree completion needs to include both the student, and their parents. Engle (2007) stated that, parental involvement is the most important factor affecting students aspirations and plans for college (p. 39). Since FGCS parents lack the cultural capital of successfully completing a four-year degree program, they too must learn the importance of higher education: how to prepare academically and financially, and how to apply, attend and succeed (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Falcon, 2015; Rice et al., 2016, Ward et al., 2012). Parental involvement then is the first step and the guiding force for promoting first-generation college student success at higher education institutions.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of the current study was to explore the ecological factors that prevent first-generation students from completing degree programs as quickly or as often as non-first generation students. These ecological factors create barriers that first-generation students must overcome in order to successfully complete their degree programs. This study focused specifically on the lived experiences of first-generation college students that attend the University of Colorado Denver, and investigated the ecological barriers these students face.
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Guiding Research Questions
The following were the Guiding Research questions for this study:
1. What ecological factors, academic and financial, affect persistence and degree completion for first-generation college students?
2. What type of cultural barriers, lack of cultural capital, and cultural adaptation, do first-generation college students face in persistence and degree completion?
3. What type of psychological barriers, unmet basic psychological needs, and low academic self-esteem, do first-generation college students face in persistence and degree completion?
4. What role does familial support play in motivation for persistence and degree completion for first-generation college students?
METHOD
Sample
The sample for this study consisted of six first-generation college students whom had completed at least one semester at the University of Colorado Denver. Of the six respondents five were female and one was male. The respondents ranged in age from 19 to 44 years old, and they had completed between two and 12 semesters at the University of Colorado Denver. These students were in the process of completing their undergraduate, or graduate degrees in Sociology, Human Development and Family Relations, Political Science, Biophysics and Philosophy, and International Business. Two of the respondents identified as Mexican American (33 %), two identified as Asian American (33%), one identified as Native American (17%), and one identified as European American (17%). Their socioeconomic status ranged from low to middle-high class, and their academic goals included Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degree programs.
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Pseudonym Sex Age Semesters at CU Undergrad Major Ethnicity SES
Albert M 27 12 Sociology Hmong Low- Middle
Ginger F 28 3 HDFR European American Low
Mandy F 19 2 Political Science Mexican American Low
Octavia F 44 4 Biophysics Philosophy Native American Low
Selena F 21 6 HDFR Public Health Mexican American Working Middle
Yoshi F 25 10 International Business Chinese/Vietnamese Middle- High
Table 1. Participant demographics.
Research Design
This study employed a qualitative phenomenological approach for its research method. During the research and planning of this study, the researcher found similar studies that employed the use of qualitative in-person interviews. It was important to capture this population of students personal lived experiences, which could only be accomplished with face-to-face interviews. Qualitative research is a process that involves contact with a persons everyday life, or societal situation (Miles & Huberman, 1994). This type of research method emphasizes a persons lived experiences and is a necessary tool in order to understand the meanings people attach to their daily experiences, as well as to connect these meanings to the rest of their world (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
By specifically using phenomenological research, which focuses on the lived experience for a number of individuals using in-depth interviews, and leads to a practical understanding of meanings and actions (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 8). The phenomena
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explored in this study are the college-going experiences of first-generation college students. Specifically, the ecological factors that affect their persistence and degree completion. This research was submitted to and approved by the Colorado Multiple Institutional Review Board (COMIRB) for expedited research, submission ID APP001-2, protocol approval number 16-2454 (see Appendix A).
Procedure
Semi-structured interviews were used to collect data for this research study. The investigator employed an interview guide with 20 pre-written questions, and the flexibility to go off script to explore the conversation as it unfolded. Participants of this study were recruited through their involvement with the TRIO Student Support Services and the Educational Opportunity Programming offices at the University of Colorado Denver.
Students who self-identified as first-generation college students were sent a recruitment email (see attachment D), soliciting their participation in this study. The requirements to participate in this study were that the students be over the age of 18 years old, have attended at least one semester at the University of Colorado Denver, and be a first-generation college student. Those willing to participate emailed the researcher to schedule an interview.
Prior to the interview, each participant chose a pseudonym and gave consent to be recorded. The interviews were conducted in a private meeting room and recorded using a digital recording application downloaded on the researchers telephone. The interviews ranged in time from 25 to 65 minutes. All six interviews were transcribed verbatim.
Interview Protocol
The Interview began by the researcher introducing herself and asking the participants to share a little about themselves. The interview guide consisted of 20 questions. The
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participants were asked about their high school experience, decision to pursue higher education, academic and career goals, involvement in pre-collegiate and on-campus programs, first year experiences, how they balance school and work schedules, satisfaction and connectedness to the University, and motivation to complete their program in a timely manner, (see Appendix C)
Data Analysis
Once the interview data was transcribed, the transcripts were analyzed, and coded recognizing common themes. The themes were then color-coded within the transcripts, and compared to one another. Miles and Huberman (2014) describe the qualitative data analysis process as, most analysis is done with words. The words can be assembled, subclustered, broken into semiotic segments. They can be organized to permit the researcher to contrast, compare, analyze, and bestow patterns upon them (p.7).
Findings
The interpretation of the interview responses led to five key themes based on the guiding research questions. These thematic areas highlighted the commonalities and differences among the participants responses, in regard to their academic, financial, cultural, psychological, and familial support and motivation needs.
Academic
The theme of academic barriers was explored by evaluating the students high school experience, current academic goals, and involvement in on-campus educational programming. Investigation of these areas was necessary in understanding what unmet academic needs these students may have. Previous literature stated that first-generation students lack academic preparation and have lower academic goals than their non-first
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generation peers. Four of the students discussed having a very positive student experience in
high school. For example, two of these students participated in a pre-collegiate programming
and two did not. One of these students explained why she felt that she had a positive high
school experience, in the following passage:
I really liked my high school. Actually, I was shocked at learning that not a lot of people liked their high school... I was really involved, we had a lot of college prep programs. I think thats what mainly helped me out. -Selena
This students positive student experience in high school seemed to be based on her
involvement in pre-collegiate programming, and high school activities. On the other hand,
two of the six students discussed having a negative high school student experience. One of
these students described her high school experience as a social experiment,
I think it was a waste of time. Honestly, I wish that they would have had something like what my kids are doing now [pre-collegiate programming], back then. I think about what I could have done. -Octavia
While interviewing this particular student it was obvious that she felt some regret about not having any pre-collegiate programming available during her high school education. This student went directly into the military after high school and wondered how her life may have been different if she had gone to college instead. The other student Ginger described her high school experience as negative and chaotic, she stated that this was due to her parents divorce and the lack of family support after the divorce. She stated that during this time, her parents were focused on their divorce, and not on her educational and emotional needs. Neither of these students participated in any pre-collegiate programming, and believed that they lacked the necessary supports to understand the college-going experience.
Another key issue to consider within the academic theme was the students academic and career goals. The previous literature stated that first-generation students lack academic
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preparation, and have lower academic goals than their non-first generation peers. Four of the
students interviewed stated that their academic goals were to complete a Masters Degree in
their field of study. One student intended to complete her Doctoral degree, and one student
recently completed her Bachelors degree. Nearly all of the students that were interested in
pursuing their Masters and Doctoral degrees were either involved in pre-collegiate
programs, or were currently enrolled in on-campus programs at the university level. Two of
the students discussed their academic goals in the following passages,
it seems first college those four years, and then a Masters in Public Administration. But thats all I got so far. -Mandy
so, I am thinking about a Masters, and I am also thinking about Law School, and I am not sure on the why, what or how. -Selena
Both of the above students had participated in pre-collegiate programming, and formulated
these higher educational goals because of this type of educational programming. The one
exception here was a 44 year old non-traditional student who had a negative high school
student experience, did not attend any pre-collegiate programs, and does not currently
participate in any on-campus programs, but is interested in pursuing a terminal degree. For
this student, the obstacles she has had to overcome thus far, has not deterred her instead it has
inspired her to continue her education in order to help others. She discusses her career plans
in the following passage,
I am trying to decide if I want to do counseling, or if I want to go into non-profit leadership. I have been looking at doing some sort of mentorship, or even starting my own program or organization. -Ginger
Another key issue to consider within the academic theme was the students involvement in on-campus educational programming. The previous literature states that students who participate in on-campus programming have higher educational goals, are more
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engaged in campus culture, and are more academically successful. Three students are currently participating in on-campus student programming, and three are not. The programs that these students participate in are the TRIO Student Support Services, Educational Opportunity Programming, and Veteran Student Services. The students who currently participate in these programs did not necessarily participate in pre-collegiate programs, and had varying academic goals. One of the students discussed her involvement in on-campus programming in the following passage,
EOP and TRIO, and also SACNAS, it is the Society for Advancing Chicanos, and Native Americans in Science. We didnt have a chapter here so I started one. -Octavia
This student is a non-traditional student, who has children that participate in pre-collegiate
programming in high school, and at a higher education institution. She belongs to
programming on-campus and she also created a chapter of a student organization that
supports Native American and Latin students in Science, a historically underrepresented
population in this discipline. Another student discussed how her involvement in on-campus
programming differed from other students in the following passage,
I tried TRIO but I only made it to two meetings, and then I just stopped. I didnt really fulfill all of the requirements. For the most part, I always attended the events that were going on, whether it was a show or a play, and the educational seminars. And I still do if I have time in my schedule. -Yoshi
Yoshi was more interested in attending on-campus events and activities, than in participating
in on-campus programming.
The findings from this theme revealed that the majority of the students interviewed had a positive high school student experience, and either participated in pre-collegiate or on-campus programming, and had higher educational goals, such as Masters and Doctoral degrees. This contradicts the literature which stated, that first-generation college students
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lack academic preparation, have lower educational aspirations, and suffer from lower academic self-esteem (Engle et al., 2006). One may assume, these students involvement in pre-collegiate and on-campus programming, prepared them academically for the higher education environment.
Financial
The theme of financial barriers was explored by evaluating whether the student
worked, if they worked on or off-campus, and how many hours they worked per week.
Investigation of these areas was necessary in understanding what unmet financial needs these
students may have. Previous literature stated that first-generation students often lack the
financial resources to pay for educational costs, and tend to work more hours than their non-
first generation peers. Three of the students interviewed worked on-campus, and they worked
between 10 and 45 hours per week. These students discussed being able to do homework
during work hours, and having supportive employers in terms of work and school schedules.
Two of the students interviewed worked off-campus and worked between 20 and 40 hours
per week. However, both of these students who worked off-campus mentioned feeling that
they live in two different worlds, their school life and their work life, while not being fully
immersed in either. One of these students realized the importance of being involved and on-
campus, and describes her experience in the following passage,
I wish I could just TA full-time... something like that full-time on on-campus where I would have more capacity to be able to work on homework, and be on campus... Its like being in two different worlds. I am constantly stepping out of this world and into the other. ...And it is a weird transition because there are days when I have work and school, so I step in and out of those worlds. -Ginger
This student indicated that she was looking for a full-time position on-campus. It was
important for her to make enough money to support herself but also be connected to the
campus community. One of the students interviewed does not work because she is a non-
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traditional student who is now retired from the Navy. Overall, the majority of the students understood the importance of working on-campus in order to be more engaged in the on-campus community.
The findings highlighting theme, indicated that the majority of the students worked, both on-campus and off-campus. This aligned with what the literature in that first-generation students tend to come from working-class and low socioeconomic backgrounds that lack financial resources to pay for post-secondary education (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Stephens et al., 2012; Ward et al., 2012), when compared to continuing-generation students. It may be important to note that students who worked on-campus, had a supportive work environment that allowed them to work on homework during down times. While students who worked off-campus, stated that they felt a disconnect between their work and school environments, and commonly had problems balancing their work and school schedules. Cultural
The theme of cultural barriers was explored by evaluating the students first semester experiences, and their sense of belonging to their university. Investigation of this areas was necessary in understanding what unmet cultural needs these students may have. Previous literature stated that first-generation students lack the cultural capital necessary to navigate the higher education environment, and experience difficulties adapting to the culture of higher education institutions. All of the students interviewed for the current study had a positive first semester at their institutions to varying degrees. Two of the students participated in pre-collegiate programs in high school where they visited campus and took college courses prior to attending the university. They credited this pre-collegiate programming with helping them to be more prepared for their first semester as a student on
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campus. One student took college credit classes during her junior and senior years of high school and felt academically prepared to attend classes at a university level, but lacked the information to find the resources available to her on-campus. One student was a non-traditional student who transferred from the Community College of Denver after completing her associates degree, and made the deans list her first semester at CU Denver. Another student transferred from CU Boulder after his first-year. He indicated that he had a negative first year experience at CU Boulder, and did not feel that he fit in there. On top of that, he had a very long commute and most of his friends attended classes at CU Denver. He stated that his first semester at CU Denver was a big improvement from his first year at CU Boulder. Another student was a non-traditional student who had not attended classes in many years, she had a positive first semester even though she experienced stress over academics and time management. In particular, a student discussed her first semester experience in the following passage,
My first semester of college was really great. I have been having such an awesome experience so far, because I am involved in organizations. I am part of student government, ... I also work at the Dean of Students office, which leads me to a lot of different opportunities. -Mandy
This student is in her second semester of her degree program, and realizes how her involvement in Student Government has connected her to several on-campus resources, and improved her overall college-going experience.
Another area to consider within the cultural theme was the students sense of connection to CU Denver. The previous literature stated that first-generation students experience difficulties adapting to the campus culture of higher education institutions. As indicated in the examples above, all students interviewed stated that they felt connected to the university in one way or the other. Half of the students who work on-campus for Student
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Government, the Office of Student Engagement, and TRIO Student Support Services, stated
that they felt a sense of community because of their on-campus jobs and student
organizations. The other half of the students felt a strong connection to their respective
departments of study, and their sense of community came from the students and faculty in
their departments. One of these students discussed this connection in the following passage,
.. .It is funny because its more a connection to the department than the university. Every single staff member that I have encountered and been involved with in this program has been so incredibly passionate and connected. They really reach out, they want to make sure that they are supporting you. -Ginger
All of the students in this study had a positive first semester experience and felt a connection
to CU Denver, perhaps because of their on-campus involvement with student organizations
or their respective departments.
The findings from this theme highlighted that the students in this study had different ways of gaining the necessary cultural capital that they lacked from their parents and families. These students acquired this capital through their involvement in pre-collegiate programming, or from attending other institutions before enrolling at CU Denver. These students were able to use this capital to successfully navigate the higher education environment. This aligned with the literature that stated parents of first-generation students lack the experience and skills to understand the higher educational process, navigate the admissions process, and understand the time and financial constraints in order to improve their students college going experiences and educational outcomes (Engle et al, 2006; McCoy, 2014; Ward et al. 2012).
Psychological
The theme of psychological barriers was explored by evaluating the overall satisfaction that students had with their education at CU Denver. Investigation of this area
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was necessary in understanding what unmet psychological needs these students may have.
Previous literature stated that first-generation students often have physiological, safety,
belonging, and esteem needs that go unmet. The majority of the students interviewed
reported feeling very satisfied with their education at CU Denver, the remaining students felt
satisfied. The students explained that their satisfaction levels were based on their pride to
be a part of this university, that they felt they were receiving a quality education, and that
they were able to experience diversity and culture other than their own. For example, one
student discussed her satisfaction with her education at CU Denver in the following passage,
I am actually really satisfied with it... I feel like through CU Denver, I was able to get that diversity, that city culture that I really needed to experience. Just to be able to learn about was actually happening and throughout history. I felt accepted, I felt safe. -Yoshi
This students experiences aligned with Maslows hierarchy of needs in regard to having her physiological, safety, belonginess, and esteem needs met. This was evidenced in her feeling accepted and safe, which lead to her high level of satisfaction with her education here at CU Denver.
The results from this theme demonstrated that all of the students interviewed were satisfied with their education at CU Denver. These students did not seem to suffer from any unmet basic psychological needs. This was measured by their satisfaction with their education, a sense of belonging to CU Denver, and their academic goals. This aligns with previous research indicating that, first-generation students must feel competent, autonomous, and related to their college experience in order to build intrinsic motivation, which will help them to be more successful at persisting and completing a degree (Trevino & DeFreitas, 2014).
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Combination of Factors
The combination of the academic, cultural, financial and psychological themes was
explored by evaluating the reasons why students chose to attend CU Denver as opposed to
another university, and how long it will take them to finish their degree program.
Investigation of this area was necessary in understanding what other unmet needs these
students may have. Previous literature stated that first-generation students attend less
prestigious institutions and take longer than six years to complete their degree programs. All
of the students interviewed discussed location when asked why they chose to attend CU
Denver over other universities. Half of the students began at other universities, and
transferred to CU Denver. These students chose CU Denver because of its location and sense
of community in comparison to the universities that they transferred from. Two of the
students were accepted to other universities, but decided to attend CU Denver because of
location and cost. One student participated in a pre-collegiate program connected to CU
Denver and did not apply anywhere else. She stated that, she felt a sense of community at CU
Denver. As illustrated by one student, who discusses her choice to attend CU Denver even
though she was accepted at three other Colorado colleges in the following passage,
I chose to go to CU Denver, one because it was in the city, and I love the city; two, this is what I tell my brother who is checking out colleges now, you have to find a school thats... the right fit for you. CU Denver is in the city, and it is so beautifully diverse, that is why I chose [it],. .it had all the components I needed and was a good fit for me. -Mandy
This student participated in pre-collegiate programming and had many options on where to attend college. For her it was about fit and finding an institution that met her needs. She was able to understand her needs through her involvement in pre-collegiate programming and make an educated decision on what institution to attend.
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Another important factor to consider within the combination of factors theme was the length of time to complete their four-year degree program. Previous literature states that first-generation students take longer than six years to complete their degree programs. Half of the students stated that it will take more than four years and less than five years to complete their four-year degree. The other half of students interviewed stated that it will take six or more years to graduate with their four-year degree. Two of these students are non-traditional students who transferred to CU Denver from other universities, and one student that started in one major did not do well in that major, and switched majors. It may be important to note that the students who will take six or more years to complete their degree programs did not participate in any pre-collegiate programming, perhaps this is why they started at other institutions before transferring to CU Denver, or started in another major and then changed their major. These experiences increased the time required to complete their degree programs, which were not encountered by the students who participated in pre-collegiate programming.
The findings from this theme demonstrated that students chose to attend CU Denver based on its location and sense of community. This aligns with previous research that stated first-generation students chose their institutions based on cost, and proximity to home (Engle et al., 2006; Falcon, 2015; Rice et al., 2016). The findings also revealed that students who participated in pre-collegiate programming will complete their degree programs in under five years, while students who did not participate in pre-collegiate programming will take six or more years to complete a four-year degree program. This demonstrates that pre-collegiate programming does help students to define their academic goals, and prepare academically in order to complete their degree programs in a timely manner.
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Familial Support and Motivation
The theme of familial support and motivation was explored by discussing why the students chose to pursue a college degree, what their familys reaction to pursuing a degree, and their motivations to complete their degree programs. Investigating this area was necessary in understanding the familial support and motivation needs these students may have. Previous literature stated that parents of first-generation students lack experiences and necessary skills from attending a four-year degree program, in order to support their childrens educational pursuits. Almost all of the students interviewed stated that higher education was a parental expectation. These students also mentioned the vast number of hours, and type of employment that their parents hold as motivating factors to completing a higher education degree. One unique case was a student that had retired from the military, and wanted to complete the education she began while in the military.
Another critical factor to consider within the familial support theme was the families reaction to the student pursuing a degree. Previous literature stated that parents of first-generation students do not understand the time and financial commitment required to complete a four-year degree. All of the students interviewed stated that their familys reaction to pursuing a degree as incredibly supportive, even when they did not know how to fully support their students. For a couple of the students that participated in pre-collegiate programming, their parents received parent specific programming as part of the program. These students stated that this parental support has increased parental support regarding the academic and financial planning necessary to attend the university.
Another aspect to consider within the familial support theme was the students motivation to complete their degree program. Previous literature stated that first-generation
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students complete their degree programs in order to help their families. Five of the students
interviewed stated that their parents and family were what motivates them to complete their
degree. It is important to note that for these students, their parents and family continually
push them to stay on track. One students motivation to complete their degree came from her
own need to finish what they had started. For the majority of the students interviewed, their
parents and families were both the motivation to attend college and complete their degree
programs. One student discussed this sentiment in the following passage,
It was expected of me to go to college... just my parents understanding the importance of education. They definitely didnt want me to struggle the way they did, and for me just seeing how they struggled and how that impacted my family.
Working and living pay check to paycheck.. .making something of yourselves, doing a good job and working somewhere that you are proud of.. .thats what motivates me to finish my degree. -Albert
The students involved in this study stated that their parents and families supported them unconditionally but did not fully understand the time and money commitments required at the higher education level.
Findings from this theme illustrated that family and parental support were the motivation for both initially pursing a degree program and continued persistence to complete the degree program. Previous research discusses the importance of including parents and families in order to improve first-generation students college-going experiences (Engle et al., 2006; Fan, Williams & Wolters, 2012). This study echoed the literature in that the students that participated in pre-collegiate programs had a higher level of parental support because of parent specific programming. The parents in these programs were able to more effectively help their students prepare for the academic, financial, cultural and psychological demands required to be successful at a higher education level. This aligns with the research that stated that parental and family engagement is a predicting factor in their students
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academic success (Fan et al., 2012). Therefore, it may be important for higher education institutions to increase parental and family engagement to promote first-generation college student success.
Discussion
The recurring theme that the students discussed throughout the interviews was, / thought I was the only one who felt like this. This sentiment was mentioned when discussing the academic, cultural, financial, psychological, and familial needs that these students had encountered along their path to higher education degree pursuits. These students spoke about the sense of pride they felt for persisting in their degree programs and the desire to help others to also be successful in higher education. The desire to help others to be successful was also true of the administrators that I spoke to when researching the programs and supports available for first-generation here at CU Denver. These administrators had also been first-generation college students with a lack of pre-collegiate programming, and their struggles have fueled their desire to help first-generation students to persist and complete their degree programs.
There were some difference between the literature and the findings from this study. One important aspect to note is the participants from this study were recruited through their involvement in the TRIO student support services and Educational Opportunity Programming. Perhaps, this is why these students have been successful and a stark contrast to what the literature states about this sub-population of students. These students exemplify the purpose and result of pre-collegiate and on-campus programming involvement. It is crucial that we understand how many students are not connected to any educational programming and are struggling through their degree programs, or worse dropping out. We need to
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understand how their experiences differ from the students in this study and if their experiences align more closely with the available literature.
It is approximated that nearly fifty percent of all incoming freshmen are first-generation students (Chen, 2005; Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007), which is the fastest growing subpopulation of students on college campuses today. These students represent a large percentage of all students and it is of the upmost importance that we identify and address their ecological needs to ensure that they can complete their degree programs. We must make sure that these students are receiving the educational programming that they need be successful at higher education institutions.
Strengths and Limitations
One strength of this study was the use of face-to-face interviews in order to investigate the ecological factors that affect first-generation college students persistence and degree completion. It is important to hear about these students college-going experiences in order to be able to fully understand their needs and challenges, and explore the commonalities in the factors that have made these students successful, in comparison to those who have not persisted.
One limitation of this study, was not investigating the connection to these students lived experiences and their high school and university GPAs. Although these students have persisted this far in their degree programs, it would be interesting to see how their GPAs are connected to the themes that emerged in the findings.
Another limitation of this study was having limited resources (time and money) to only conduct six student interviews on one university campus. With a larger sample size that included students from a wide range of institutions, we would be able to translate the
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experiences of first-generation students here on the Auraria campus, to generalize the needs of first-generation college students in Colorado. The Auraria campus is the largest college campus in Colorado, that serves approximately 44,000 students with three higher education institutions. When we clearly understand the needs that first-generation students face here in Colorado, we can better address them and ensure that they are persisting and completing their degree programs.
Implications for Policy and Practice
For the students involved in this study, pre-collegiate, on-campus programming, and familial support has made the difference in their persistence, and ultimately their degree completion. This means that pre-collegiate and on-campus programs are vital for those that get the message and are involved. It seems that getting the message out there may be the most difficult part, and it should begin well before students arrive on college campuses. In addition, parental involvement may be the missing piece of the puzzle therefore creating parent specific programming may be the solution. A parent program that educates parents on preparing their students academically, financially, and psychologically, for the college-going environment. By implementing parent and family programs, especially in low-income and underserved areas, beginning earlier in the students K-12 education, we can give first-generation students the cultural capital necessary to navigate the higher education system.
Just because their parents have not completed a four-year degree program does not mean that they cannot support their students in successfully completing college education.
Conclusion
A college education is commonly referred to as the great equalizer between social classes (Markus, Ryff, Curhan, & Palmersheim, 2004; Prospero et al., 2012; Stephens et al.,
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2012). It is seen as a way for underrepresented students to improve their lives and ultimately the lives of their families. First generation students are defined as the first in their families to attend college. They pursue college degrees in order to increase their social mobility and live out the American dream with their families. Every student regardless of race or socioeconomic status, deserves to have access to, and the supports necessary to, successfully complete a college education. This does not only benefit the student and their family, but our society as a whole. The current political landscape has shown us just how dangerous having a population of uneducated people can be. In order for our country to be successful in coming generations, we need to have a society made up of educated people, and ensure that we are all active global citizens.
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Chen, X. (2005). First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts (NCES 2005-171). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Davis, J. (2010). The First-Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus
Practice and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success. Sterling, VA: ACPA, College Student Educators International.
DeAngelo, L., Franke, R., Hurtado, S., Pryor, J.H., Tran, S. (2011). Completing College: Accessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The What and Why of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 77(4), 227-268.
Engle, J., Bermeo, A., & O'Brien, C. (2006). Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students. Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Straight_from_the_Source.pdf
Engle, J. (2007). Postsecondary Access and Success for First-Generation College Students. American Academic, 3(1), 25-48.
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Falcon, L. (2015). Breaking Down Barriers: First-Generation College Students and College. League for Innovation in the Community College. Retrieved from: https://www.league.org/innovation-showcase/breaking-down-barriers-first-generation-college-students-and-college-success
Fan, W., Williams, C.M., Wolters, C.A. (2012). Parental Involvement in Predicting School Motivation: Similar and Differential Effects Across Ethnic Groups. The Journal of Educational Research, 105, 21-35. Doi: 10.1080/00220671.2010.515625.
Ingels, S.J., Abraham, S.Y., Karr, R., Spencer, B.D., & Frankel, M.R. (1990). National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NCES 90-464). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Jehangir, R.R. (2010). Higher Education and First-Generation Students: Cultivating
Community, Voice, and Place for the New Majority. New York, NY: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.
Markus, H., Ryff, C., Curhan, K., & Palmersheim, K. (2004). In Their Own Words: Well-Being at Midlife Among High School-Educated and College-Educated Adults. In Brim, O. G., Ryff, C. D., & Kessler, R. C. (Eds.), How healthy are we?: A national study of well-being at midlife (pp. 273-319). Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Maslow, A. H. (1973). Dominance, self-esteem, self-actualization: Germinal papers of A. H. Maslow. Monterey, Calif: Brooks/Cole Pub. Co.
McCoy, D.L. (2014). A Phenomenological Approach to Understanding First-Generation College Students of Color Transitions to one Extremely Predominantly White Institution. College Student Affairs Journal, 32(1), 155-169.
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Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Prospero, M., Russell, A.C., Vohra-Gupta, S. (2012). Effects of Motivation on Educational Attainment: Ethnic and Developmental Differences Among First-Generation Students. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 11( 1), 100-119. Doi: 10.1177/1538192711435556.
Pyne, K.B., & Means, D.R. (2013). Underrepresented and In/visible: A Hispanic First-Generation Students Narratives of College. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, doi: 10.1037/a0034115.
Rice, A.J., Colbow, A.J, Gibbons, S., Cederberg, C., Sahker, E., Liu, W.M., and Wurster, K. (2016). The Social Class Worldviews of Frist-Generation College Students. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 7-26. Doi: 10.1080/09515070.2016.1179170. Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. Doi: 10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.68
Stephens, N.M., Fryberg, S.A., Markus, H.R. Johnson, C.S., and Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Doi: 10.1037/a0027143.
Taormina, R.J., & Gao, J.H. (2013). Maslow and the Motivation Hierarchy: Measuring Satisfaction of the Needs. The American Journal of Psychology, 126(2), 155-177.
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Trevino, N.N., & DeFreitas, S.C. (2014). The Relationship Between Intrinsic Motivation and Academic Achievement for First-Generation Latino College Students. Social Psychology of Education, 17, 293-306.
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college students: Understanding and improving the experience from recruitment to commencement (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
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CHAPTER IV
GLOBAL DISCUSSION
The issue of persistence and degree completion for first-generation college students is multi-faceted. These students face a wide variety of barriers to attendance, persistence, and degree completion. In order to improve the educational outcomes of these students, we must continue to research this population of students and have a better understanding of how their lived experiences impact their college-going experiences. This thesis study focused specifically on the lived experiences of first-generation college students that attend CU Denver. The key themes that emerged from the study were organized based on the guiding research questions. These themes are the academic, financial, cultural, psychological, and familial factors that affect persistence and degree completion for first-generation students.
The findings from the academic theme revealed that the students experiences in this study did not align with previous research. The literature states that first-generation college students lack academic preparation, have lower educational aspirations, and suffer from lower academic self-esteem (Engle et al., 2006). The majority of the students interviewed had a positive high school student experience, and either participated in pre-collegiate or on-campus programming, and had higher educational goals, such as Masters and Doctoral degrees. Nearly all of the students interested in pursuing their Masters and Doctoral degrees were either involved in pre-collegiate programs, or were currently enrolled in on-campus programs. Perhaps their involvement in higher educational programming has informed their decisions to pursue terminal degrees in higher education. The findings from the financial theme revealed that the students in this study did have to work in order to cover their educational costs, but students who worked on-campus were able to stay more connected to
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campus and on-campus programming, this aligned with previous research. The literature states that first-generation students tend to come from working-class and low socioeconomic backgrounds that lack financial resources to pay for post-secondary education (Engle et al., 2006; Engle, 2007; Stephens et al., 2012; Ward et al., 2012), when compared to continuing-generation students. The majority of the students interviewed who worked on-campus, had a supportive work environment that allowed them to work on homework during down times. The students that worked off-campus, stated that they felt a disconnect between their work and school environments, and commonly had problems balancing their work and school schedules.
The findings from the cultural theme revealed how the students in this study were able to gain the cultural capital that they lacked in order to navigate the higher education environment, this aligns with previous research. The literature states that parents of first-generation students, lack the experience and skills to understand the higher educational process, navigate the admissions process, and understand the time and financial constraints in order to improve their students college going experiences and educational outcomes (Engle et al, 2006; McCoy, 2014; Ward et al. 2012). The students in this study had different ways of gaining the necessary cultural capital that they lacked from their parents and families. Half of the students participated in pre-collegiate programs, or took AP Classes in high school, and the other half of the students transferred from other institutions. All of the students were able to gain some of that cultural capital to successfully navigate the higher education environment. For the students that transferred from other institutions, they experienced difficulties with cultural adaptation at those universities and ultimately transferred to CU Denver.
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The findings from the psychological theme revealed that the students in this study did not experience any psychological barriers, which did not align with previous research. The literature states that first-generation students must feel competent, autonomous, and related to their college experience in order to build intrinsic motivation, which will help them to be more successful at persisting and completing a degree (Trevino & DeFreitas, 2014). All of the students interviewed were satisfied with their education at CU Denver, and felt a sense of belonging to the university or their departments. These students did not seem to suffer from any unmet basic psychological needs, or low academic self-esteem. This was measured by their satisfaction with their education, a sense of belonging to CU Denver, and their academic goals.
The findings from the familial theme revealed that the students in this study had high levels of familial support and motivation, even when they did not understand how to fully support them. Fan, Williams and Wolters (2012), point out that research from the last decade has shown that parental involvement is a significant factor in predicting students academic success (p. 21). Parental involvement is the first step for promoting first-generation college student success at higher education institutions. Family and parental support was the motivation for both initially pursing a degree program, and continued persistence to complete the degree program. The students stated that their parents and families supported them unconditionally, but did not fully understand the time and money commitments required at the higher education level. The students that participated in pre-collegiate programs had a higher level of parental support because of parent specific programming. The parents in these programs were able to help their students more effectively prepare for the academic,
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financial, cultural, and psychological demands required to be successful at a higher education level.
Future Research Through Focus Groups
While conducting this study, I observed two first-generation college student focus groups hosted by the TRIO SSS office, which opened the window for future research. These focus groups were not a part of this study, but the information gained was insightful. The TRIO SSS office organized these focus groups to measure if the current programming was addressing all of their students needs. The themes that emerged from these focus groups triangulated the lived experiences of the students interviewed in the current study. The students in the focus groups discussed topics such as: the importance of their participation in pre-collegiate programs in high-school, their transition to college, time and money management skills, and familial support. The majority of the students had participated in precolligate programming, they stated that these programs helped them prepare academically, and financially for the college-going experience. Nearly every student in the focus group worked at least 15 hours per week, and spoke about the challenges of balancing school and work schedules. As for those students who worked on-campus, they felt it was easier to balance work and school while still being engaged in on-campus activities. Students who worked off-campus commonly worked evening, night, and weekend shifts to try to maximize their time spent on-campus during the week days. The majority of focus group members stated that their families placed a high importance on education and expected them to pursue college degrees. Although these findings were not included in this current study, it did illustrate the need for further research to further understand the experiences of first-generation students.
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Implications for Policy and Practice
This study demonstrates that pre-collegiate, on-campus programming, and familial support make the difference in persistence, and ultimately degree completion for first-generation students. The intent of this study was to add to this body of research, both on a state and national level. Pre-collegiate and on-campus programming work for those that get the message and are involved on-campus. It seems that getting the message out there may be the most difficult part. It should begin well before students arrive on college campuses. Parental involvement may be the missing piece of the puzzle and creating parent specific programming may be the solution. A parent program that educates parents on preparing their students academically, financially, and psychologically, for the college-going environment. By implementing parent and family programs, especially in low-income and underserved areas, beginning earlier in the students K-12 education, we can give first-generation students the cultural capital necessary to navigate the higher education system. Just because their parents have not completed a four-year program does not mean that they cannot support them in successfully completing a college degree program.
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CHAPTER V
GLOBAL CONCLUSION
A college education is commonly seen as the great equalizer between social classes. It affords the poor and working class the opportunity to advance financially and socially (Markus, Ryff, Curhan, & Palmersheim, 2004). First generation students are the first in their families to attend college. They pursue college degrees in order to increase their social mobility and live out the American dream.
. The aim of this current study was to explore the ecological factors that serve as barriers to higher education for first-generation students. What it found was that students that are connected to pre-collegiate or on-campus programming are persisting and completing their degree programs in a timely fashion. It also highlighted the need for more research on this sub-population of students. It is imperative that we explore how to accurately identify first-generation students who are not connected with any pre-collegiate or on-campus programming. This is a necessary step in order to more accurately address the discrepancies between the graduation rates of first-generation students and their non-first generation peers. Every student regardless of race or socioeconomic status deserves to have access, and the supports necessary, to successfully complete a college education
This does not only benefit the student and their family, but our society as a whole. As we move towards the future, we look to the next generation of students to lead this country. These students must have the necessary knowledge and skills, to compete in the global economy. The current political landscape has shown us just how dangerous having a population of uneducated people could be. In order for our country to be successful in
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coming generations, we need to have a society made up of educated people, that ensure we are all active global citizens.
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Chen, X. (2005). First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts (NCES 2005-171). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Davis, J. (2010). The First-Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus
Practice and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success. Sterling, VA: ACPA, College Student Educators International.
DeAngelo, L., Franke, R., Hurtado, S., Pryor, J.H., & Tran, S. (2011). Completing College: Accessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The What and Why of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 77(4), 227-268.
Demetriou, C. & Mann, A. (2011). Encouraging First-Generation College Student Success. Academic Advising Today, 35(2).
Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Encouraging-First-Generation-College-Student-Success.aspx
Engle, J., Bermeo, A., & O'Brien, C. (2006). Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students. Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher
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Education. Retrieved from http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Straight_from_the_Source.pdf
Engle, J. (2007). Postsecondary Access and Success for First-Generation College Students. American Academic, 3(1), 25-48.
Falcon, L. (2015). Breaking Down Barriers: First-Generation College Students and College. League for Innovation in the Community College. Retrieved from: https://www.league.org/innovation-showcase/breaking-down-barriers-first-generation-college-students-and-college-success
Fan, W., Williams, C.M., Wolters, C.A. (2012). Parental Involvement in Predicting School Motivation: Similar and Differential Effects Across Ethnic Groups. The Journal of Educational Research, 105, 21-35. Doi: 10.1080/00220671.2010.515625.
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Jehangir, R.R. (2010). Higher Education and First-Generation Students: Cultivating
Community, Voice, and Place for the New Majority. New York, NY: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN.
Markus, H., Ryff, C., Curhan, K., & Palmersheim, K. (2004). In Their Own Words: Well-Being at Midlife Among High School-Educated and College-Educated Adults. In Brim, O. G., Ryff, C. D., & Kessler, R. C. (Eds.), How healthy are we?: A national study of well-being at midlife (pp. 273-319). Chicago: University of Chicago Press
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Higher Ed. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/ll/10/who-are-first-generation-students-and-how-do-they-fare
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Stephens, N.M., Fryberg, S.A., Markus, H.R. Johnson, C.S., and Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Doi: 10.1037/a0027143.
Taormina, R.J., & Gao, J.H. (2013). Maslow and the Motivation Hierarchy: Measuring Satisfaction of the Needs. The American Journal of Psychology, 126(2), 155-177. Trevino, N.N., & DeFreitas, S.C. (2014).The Relationship Between Intrinsic Motivation and Academic Achievement for First-Generation Latino College Students. Social Psychology of Education, 17, 293-306.
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Retrieved from: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio/triohea.pdf Ward, L., Siegel, M. J., Davenport, Z., & Ebooks Corporation. (2012). First-generation
college students: Understanding and improving the experience from recruitment to commencement (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
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APPENDIX A COMIRB Approval
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APPENDIX B
Informed Consent Form
Consent Form
Principal Investigator: Mi COMIRB No: 14-2454 Version Date: 01/04/2017
COMIRB APPROVED For Use 27-Jan-2017
26-Jan-2018
Study Tide: Thesis: First-Generation College Student Supports
You are being asked to be in a research study. This form provides you with infomiatiou about die study. A member of the research team will describe this study to you and answer all of your questions Please read the information below and ask questions about anything you don't understand before deciding whether or not to take part.
Why is this study being done?
This study' plans to leara more about what successful first-generation college students' needs and support systems are. This data will help me to better understand how we can improve graduation and retention rates for first-generation students on higher education campuses. You are being asked to be m this research study because you have identified as a first-generation college student. Up to 6 people will participate in the study.
What happens if 1 join this study?
If you jom the study, you will participate in a face-to-face interview with a researcher that will take approximately 60 to 90 minutes to complete During die interview, you will be asked a series of questions to help us understand your experience as a first-generation college student at the University of Colorado Denver. You can slap any question at any time, or end the interview altogether The interview will be digitally recorded: these files will be kept for 2 years, aid then destroyed. In order to assure that your responses remain confidential, you will be assigned a pseudonym or fake name". Transcripts of your interview will be kept on one researcher's computer, but your name will never be associated with your transcript
What are the possible discomforts or risks?
No risk to physical, psychological or economic well-being of participants is foreseen What are the possible benefits of the study?
No benefits to participants are foreseen Is my participation voluntary?
Taking part in this study is voluntary. You have the right to choose not to take part in this study. If you choose to take part, you have the right to stop at any time. If you refuse or decide to withdraw later, you will not lose any benefits or rights to which you are entided
Consent Template Social and Behavioral CF-156. Effective 4-20-2010
Page 1 of 2 Initials^
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Who do I call if I have questions?
The researcher carrying oin this study is Man Ortega You may ask any questions you have now. If you have questions later, you may call Mari Oitega at (720) 387-6064
You may have questions about your rights as someone in this study. You can call Mari Ortega with questions. You can also call the Multiple Institutional Review Board (IRB). You can call them at 303-724-1055.
Who wiD see my research information"
We wiU do everything we can to keep your records a secret. It cannot be guaranteed. Both die records that identify you and the consent form signed by you may be looked at by others.
Federal agencies that monitor human subject research
Human Subject Research Committee The group doing the study
The group paying for die study
Regulatory officials from the institution where the research is being conducted who want to make sure the research is safe
The results from the research may be shared at a meeting. The results from the research may be in published articles. Your name win be kept private when information is presented.
The interview will be digitally recorded: these files wiU be kept for 2 years, and then destroyed. Agreement to be in this study
I have read this paper about the study or it was read to rue I understand the possible risks and benefits of this study I know that bring in this study is voluntary. I choose to be in this study: I wiU get a copy of this consent fotm
Signature:______________________________________________________ Date:________________
Print Name:_
Consent form explained by:________________________________ Date:_
Print Name: _____________________________________________________
Consent Template Social and Behavioral CF-156, Effective 4-20-2010 Page 2 of2


APPENDIX C
Interview Questions and Guide
All interview questions are subject to further discussion in order to draw out relevant information due to the qualitative nature of the research. The questions listed are a starting point for discussion.
1. Tell me what made you decide to pursue a college degree?
a. Was your family supportive of this decision?
2. What are your academic goals?
a. What are your career goals?
3. Did you delay pursuing a degree after high school?
a. If so, why?
4. Can you explain what made you choose University of Colorado Denver?
b. Your specific major?
5. Did you participate in any pre-collegiate programs prior to attending UCD?
6. How many academic semesters have you attended UCD?
7. Are you involved in any collegiate programs?
a. What drew you to these organizations? Tell me about your involvement with that organization.
d. If not, why? Are you involved with anything off-campus?
8. Tell me about your first semester at UCD.
9. Did you live on-campus, or off-campus?
a. with who?
10. Do you feel a connection or sense of belonging to UCD?
11. Do you currently work on or off campus?
a. How many hours per week do you typically work?
b. How does this affect your schooling?
12. Do you currently support a family?
a. Does that make it harder to achieve your academic goals?
13. Explain how you balance your course work, social activities, and other commitments.
a. Did you struggle with this during your first year at UCD?
b. Do you still struggle with it?
14. How satisfied are you with UCD?
15. Are there any programs that you would like to see implemented to assist students during their first year at the University of Colorado Denver?
a. Beyond the first year?
16. What is motivating you to complete your bachelors degree?
17. Do you feel that you will complete your bachelors degree in the recommended time for your degree plan?
18. Do you feel that being a first-generation college student has made it harder for you to achieve your academic goals?
19. Do you have any additional comments that you would like to add?
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APPENDIX D Recruitment Email
Hello, my name is Mari Ortega, I am a graduate student in the School of Education and Human Development at CU Denver. I am interested in interviewing first-generation college students whom have completed at least one semester at CU Denver. I am currently working on my thesis, this study aims to explore what first-generation students need and want in order to improve retention and graduation rates, and enhance students overall college experience.
Because you were identified as a first-generation college student I would like to meet with you in person and ask you a few questions about your experiences at CU Denver.
Specifically, what factors lead to your enrollment at CU Denver, what collegiate programs you are currently involved in, what support groups or systems that you might be involved with, and your overall satisfaction with your experience at CU Denver.
If you agree to participate in this study, you can skip any of the questions or end the interview at any time. The interview will take about 60-90 minutes to complete, and your responses will remain confidential. If you are interested in participating in the interview, please contact me at mari.ortega@ucdenver.edu. Please include your contact information so that an interview can be set up at your convenience. I can also answer any further questions you may have about this study.
Thank you for your consideration in advance,
Mari Ortega
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