Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Educational Leadership and Policy Studies

First Advisor

Tammy G. Kolbe



First-generation college students earn college degrees in the United States at much lower rates when compared to non-first-generation college students. These students frequently face different challenges accessing and completing college degrees than those encountered by their peers with college-educated parents. A key challenge for institutions of higher education (IHE) is to develop effective policies, programs, and resources that support college completion among first generation college students.

First-generation students are far from a homogenous group. Rather, they exist on a spectrum of familial experiences with higher education. For instance, important differences may exist between students who have a parent who did not complete high school and those that have some college, or even postsecondary graduate education experience. Students’ familiarity with higher education institutions and processes, as well as their social networks and family resources greatly influences first-generation college students’ success in college. Yet, typically, first-generation college students are broadly defined as students whose parents did not earn a college degree. This definition fails to acknowledge potentially meaningful differences in student backgrounds.

Moving forward, developing definitions for first-generation college students that more clearly describe their parents’ educational backgrounds holds promise for improving higher education institutions’ abilities to better align their support efforts with student needs. This study takes first steps to explore the application of alternative ways of defining first-generation college students, as well as understanding how IHEs currently identify first-generation college students at the point of admissions and track students once they matriculate.

Specifically, in this dissertation I developed a typology of possible definitions for identifying first-generation college students. Subsequently, I conducted a national survey of public, four-year, baccalaureate degree-granting IHEs where I applied this typology to better understand institutional policies and practices for identifying and tracking first-generation college students.

The study’s findings show that IHEs tend to adopt one of two general definitions for first-generation college student. The first definition does not take into account whether or not students’ parents participated in higher education, while the second lumps together students with and without parents with any exposure to college, but without a college degree. The processes and IHE administrative offices used to track first-generation college students from matriculation to graduation is institutional specific and not uniform across IHEs.

The analysis shows that many IHEs are trying to identify and support first-generation college students. However, differences in definitions used by institutions poses challenges for the field, at large, in its efforts to understand the needs of this group of students, as well as makes it difficult for institutions to align supports and services with student needs. Taken together, this exploratory study raises important questions for policymakers and educational leaders who are interested in expanding college access and success for first-generation college students.



Number of Pages

97 p.