Theses Doctoral

First-Generation College Students: Stress Points Before and During the Pandemic

Silfen, Lauren B.

This qualitative case study explored with a sample of first-generation students the factors that aided or impeded their pursuit of a degree before the pandemic, factors that impacted them during the crisis and any differences in their experiences at elite vs. non-elite schools. The rationale for the study was based on the researcher’s objective to uncover ways to help these students navigate through higher education. The researcher assumed increased understanding of the reality of a first-generation student during the pandemic would help universities design better supports to meet these students’ needs. The sample was composed of 27 first-generation undergraduates who attended 15 public and private universities across the U.S.

The data collection methods were interviews and a focus group, including demographic and statistical data supplied by the participants. The data from the interviews and focus group was coded and organized according to the research questions. Analysis, interpretation and synthesis of the findings were organized by 2 analytic categories based on the conceptual framework: a) supports and barriers influencing first-generation students’ pursuit of a degree before the crisis and b) the relationship between first-generation students’ needs and their ability to pursue a degree during the pandemic.

This research revealed that factors, such as how they prepared for college, environmental influences after enrollment and personal traits, either enabled or impeded first-generation students’ pursuit of a college degree before the pandemic. During the crisis, these students reflected on the value of a degree, in relation to the availability of college support services and their level of satisfaction with online education. Therefore, many participants reported their struggles during the pandemic helped them learn how to succeed. Finally, selectivity of the universities and availability of public funding had no material impact on how they met the needs of first-generation students during the pandemic.

Recommendations are offered for universities and education policy makers to provide advisory services over 4 years, family workshops and mentors to assist with social supports. Recommendations for students and their families include guidelines for how students can achieve more effective two-way communication with their universities. Recommendations for future research are also included.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Yorks, Lyle
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
June 15, 2022