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Disaggregate: First-generation college student


Students who are the first in their family to complete any postsecondary degree

Why it matters

First-generation students may benefit from additional supports to prepare for standardized tests, submit college applications, enroll in postsecondary school, and succeed in their first year of college and beyond. Students whose parents have limited experience with the postsecondary system “may lack the critical cultural capital necessary for college success.” First-generation college students tend to have lower rates of postsecondary persistence and completion: one study showed that 33 percent of first-generation students left school without returning within three years of beginning college, compared to 14 percent of students with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree.

What to know about measurement

Many definitions of “first-generation” college students are used in practice, with one study finding that estimates of the prevalence of first-generation status can range from 22 to 77 percent, depending on the definition used. Under federal guidance used to determine eligibility for TRIO programs (Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Service), a student is considered “first generation” if neither parent completed a four-year college degree. The Institute for Higher Education Policy defines first-generation status based on neither parent having completed any college degree—that is, a student may be considered first generation if their parents enrolled in college but did not complete it. In contrast, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) classifies a student as “first generation” if neither parent ever attended a college or university.1266 More recently, some support organizations, such as College Track, consider students whose parents completed a four-year degree outside of the United States as “first generation.” We encourage E-W systems to align on a definition of “first generation” to support coherence and common understanding in the field.

Source frameworks

This disaggregate appeared in six source frameworks reviewed for this report, such as the Institute for Higher Education Policy Postsecondary Metrics Framework and the National Student Clearinghouse Postsecondary Data Partnership.


The framework's recommendations are based on syntheses of existing research. Please see the framework report for a list of works cited.

This website was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.