First in the family: First -generation college students in the Ivy League

Deborah Yarber Clarke, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation, a qualitative study of ten first-generation college students during their freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, examines and analyzes the characteristics, expectations, and experiences of first-generation students, and provides recommendations for institutional practice and student services at highly selective, four-year colleges and universities. The research questions that guide the study speak to the influences (i.e. familial, educational, social, and economic) that impacted the students' decision to attend college, changing perceptions of self and family throughout the freshman year, students' expectations of the University, peer relationships, and non-academic support systems (such as extracurricular activities). The study seeks to answer the research questions within the context of two overriding themes: personal resiliency on behalf of the individual students, and institutional programs and practices on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania. First-generation students overlap with several categories of individuals who historically have faced obstacles in gaining access and full membership to American colleges and universities: women, racial and ethnic minorities, and individuals from modest socio-economic backgrounds. A 1997 report by the Educational Resources Institute (TERI, 1997) concludes that although first-generation students comprised approximately 45% of all undergraduates in 1995–96, first-generation students are over-represented at two-year institutions compared to their second-generation student peers (53% versus 40%) and are less likely to enroll in four-year colleges (TERI, 1997; Arredondo, 1999). Terenzini et al. (1995) predict that the proportion of first-generation students will continue to increase as the college-growing population in this country becomes increasingly diverse, both racially and socio-economically. In the interest of equity and opportunity for all individuals, highly selective, four-year institutions, where first-generation students are sorely underrepresented, particularly need to understand and embrace this growing population of students. The findings in this study inform and recommend institutional practices that attract, recruit, and retain first-generation students. These individuals represent an ideal to which highly selective colleges and universities should strive in their student body. Why? The data in this study indicate that they are high achievers who consistently earn above-average grades. They work hard and become involved in the campus community, making it a vibrant, diverse place in which to live and learn. And they do not draw inordinate resources from the institution (in terms of advising, discipline, or counseling); to the contrary, they are self-sufficient and focused on their goals as successful Ivy League students.

Subject Area

Higher education|Educational sociology|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Clarke, Deborah Yarber, "First in the family: First -generation college students in the Ivy League" (2000). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9991693.