New dissertation explores the persistence of first-generation college students during COVID-19

Beckman, C.M. (2022). How first-generation undergraduates persisted during COVID-19: Adaptive capital? [Doctoral Dissertation, Saint Mary’s College of California]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • There are different persistence and retention rates between first-generation (FC) college students and continuing-generation college students (CS).
  • Evidence also indicates that people who have a bachelor’s degree can have 80% more income compared to people who only have a high school diploma.
  • This dissertation assesses how FC undergraduate students were able to preserve during COVID-19 (C-19).
  • Qualitative themes & subthemes:
  • 1. Being first-generation (Who I am and how I got here)
    • “They made me do it”
    • College and “a better future”
  • 2. The journey and transition to college
    • Overcoming difficulties while applying to college
    • Navigating the transition to college
  • 3. Learning during COVID-19 (Challenges I faced and overcame)
    • Online learning struggles…”trapped by Zoom”
    • The home is not an ideal learning environment
    • Diminished class participation
  • 4. Professor/staff interactions during COVID-19
    • Effects of positive interactions
    • Effects of negative interactions
  • 5. “Cheating out of my college experience”
    • This doesn’t feel like college
    • You don’t really get to talk to anybody so you don’t make any new friends
  • 6. Overcoming challenges during COVID-19
    • How students coped
    • The impact of high potential
  • 7. Persisting through COVID-19 (Still I persisted)
    • Looking within
    • Reaching out to others
  • Findings demonstrate that FC status plays an essential role in students’ educational experiences.
  • Many FC students experienced a sense of loss and even depression. However, their determination to cope indicates their persistence.
  • Despite all the difficulties FC students experienced throughout the college application process and the C-19 pandemic, they were able to overcome them. They highlighted the importance of outside resources (such as staff members and college programs) that helped them.
  • Strengths-based approaches will assist students in assessing their perceived strengths, values, and areas of opportunity.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Student persistence is a topic that has been studied in the United States since the 1970s. In that time, researchers have attempted to understand the factors and elements that affect student persistence in pursuit of a post-secondary education. One branch of those studies focuses on the persistence of First-Generation (FG) students. Research indicates that FG students due not persist at the same rates as non-FG students due to various factors and obstacles. Research also shows that the number of FG students is increasing with many being Students of Color. Most of the research tends to look at what these students lack instead of the strengths they already possess and does not tackle the issue from the student’s perspective. Moreover, COVID-19 (C-19) completely upended the educational lives of FG students. This study seeks to understand how FG undergraduate students were able to persist despite the extra difficulties that C-19 introduced. It does this by focusing on the experiences and feelings of students, asking them directly how they were able to persist and overcome the disruptions C-19 caused, and approaching the topic from a strengths-based perspective. The research culminates by proposing a new theory that may help explain how FG students are able to persist during difficult times.

Implications (Reprinted from Chapter V: Analysis, Discussion, and Recommendations)

First-generation (FG) college students face many unique challenges on their road to graduation, even during the best of times. While the percentage of students who classify as FG seems to be increasing (Cataldi, et al. 2018), as just over half are earning their degree or credential within six years of starting their post-secondary education, nearly three-quarters of continuing-generation (CG) students are doing so within the same time period (Redford and Hoyer, 2017).

Understanding how and why FG students are not persisting at the same rate as CG students will allow the community of higher education an opportunity to ameliorate that issue. Since research has shown that individuals with a bachelor’s degree can earn 80 percent more income over their lifetime than those without one (Carnevale, et al., 2011), addressing this issue is a major factor in improving FG’s overall socio-economic standing. Furthermore, since studies show that Students of Color make up most of the FG student base (Redford & Hoyer, 2017; RTI International, 2019), improving persistence rates of FG students also improves overall nationwide college graduation demographics. Finally, the context of this study has intentionally focused on a strengths-based approach to FG persistence, as compared with research that has tended to emphasize what FG students “lack” —a deficit-based view—which also assumes these students come from family backgrounds that don’t value higher education (Banks & Dohy, 2019; Yosso, 2005).

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