For first-generation college-going students, education is an opportunity to break out of their inherited socioeconomic status. Though this resource is available to first-generation college students, they are not accessing postsecondary opportunities as much as their non-first-generation counterparts. Prior research has shown that students with college educated parents have a greater advantage in accessing higher education over first-generation college students. Most first-generation college students and their parents have limited access to social networks and information, and this causes a reliance on the K-12 system for direct guidance in their quest to higher education.
This dissertation explores the challenges and successes first-generation college students face in accessing higher education. Interviews were conducted with fifteen first-year, first-generation college students from a mid-size public university. Data were analyzed and coded for themes and patterns. The goal was to gain insight into these students' stories and the factors they identify as key in increasing their access to higher education. Findings show that first-generation students find motivation through their families. Not all motivation comes from positive family experiences, but these students desire to attend college so they can have a "better life" with or without the support of their families. The K-12 system continues to provide procedural information and access to higher education, but the process seems to start too late for many students. Most students recall receiving college information in high school but not so much in elementary or middle school. Teachers, counselor and programs provide access to higher education but these supports vary from school to school. Though first-generation students are making it to college, they struggle to understand the financial aspects of higher education and therefore limit their selection to colleges that are affordable rather than their "dream schools." This study yields important implications that can assist aspiring first-generation college students. This research also has the potential to assist and guide educational systems in better supporting the needs of these students.
Keywords: First-generation college student, social capital, human capital