Helping the first to finish

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.9, 13 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

Overseas they are starting to use the term “First Generation Student” instead of the “First in Family” label that we have become familiar with in New Zealand, This describes those students who go on to postsecondary education but who have no parent who went past high school.

We have known that this phenomenon is important and that the impact a successful First Generation Student has on other siblings and future generations of the family is profound. Get one child through from such a setting and the family is changed forever. What we have not known so clearly is just why this presents such a challenge to us.

A recent survey from North America drills down into the issues and comes to a conclusion that suggests that we should be able to address this issue in a positive manner.

Conventional wisdom has always been that it is the educational aspirations of First Generation Students that is the factor that limits performance and persistence at the postsecondary level. New Zealand is the third from the bottom of the OECD in terms of the proportion of students who enter a tertiary programme and leave without at least a first tertiary degree. (Only the United States of America and Italy are worse.) So persistence is a wider issue than merely that which affects First Generation Students. With them, therefore, there must be other factors and there is a growing body of opinion that aspirational factors are only part of the picture.

Certainly by the end of high school, there is evidence that First Generation Students have “lower” aspirations when measured in comparison to other students. But there is not clear evidence that this is the result of having lower ambition, or having a lower regard for the importance of education.

It is more likely that at behind this apparent brake that is placed on progression from secondary to postsecondary education is a simple question of lack of information. When parents have had no experience of postsecondary education and therefore of the transition between secondary and postsecondary education, students are less likely to develop a pathway that will take them there. Nor are they likely to develop a realisation that they lack the knowledge to do so. Educational institutions do not by and large focus on the First Generation Students as a category of students that requires specific and early interventions. Some might not even know who they are!

This suggests that there is nothing inherently handicapping in this situation since it should be possible to provide the information. The condition of First Generation Students should therefore be seen less as an intrinsic or insurmountable disadvantage and more as a mere lack of information and role models. We ought to be able to address this issue by providing the information.

That begs the question of whether role models (as in for instance parents who have been educated beyond high school) are important and whether others can perform this function. Well there are no substitute for parents so it would take a pretty radical intervention to adequately substitute a role model for a parent. No, it will have to happen outside the home and is probably the school.

Of course having an adequate level of academic preparation is also essential but that is why education institutions exist. Ensuring that students are enrolled in courses that contribute to this is critical. There is evidence that First Generation Students enrol in courses that are less rigorous and even, especially in the USA, courses that are simply not able to have them qualify for progression into college or university. Similar suggestions have been made that this is also the case here in New Zealand.

Providing knowledge has a deceptively simple look about it. But it is not that simple at all. Knowledge about education, the pathways through it and where they go, start early in a home and are cumulative. It is information that is internalised not simply a brochure that is read at the point of decision-making. The excitement generated by starting school after several years of quality early childhood education build on engagement into an ethic that sees reward in early success that underpins a capacity to develop and sustain long term goals. But where these cannot be nurtured and cultivated by parents who often through no fault of their own, simply doesn’t happen. Not without intervention and who, in such a setting, is to do this?

It is not only about what happens before the point of school leaving is reached. After that, when a First Student Generation has got across the divide into a postsecondary institution, the experience they face will be different from other students. Studies from the USA report that these students are less likely to live on campus, to develop relationships with lecturers and staff (who they do not see as being concerned about their progress) and they will work in jobs earning money off campus. As a result they do not develop strong relationships with their fellow students nor do they engage in campus activity.

Now if we look beyond the USA characteristics of these findings, we can translate these findings into questions about New Zealand students who are First Generation Students. Do they tend to live at home rather than amongst other students? Do they develop a more distant relationship with staff? Are New Zealand staff members interested in their progress? Do the realities of student finances force students from such a background into work that interferes with study?

It is a vexed question, this business of getting First Generation Students into postsecondary. A recent study of the topic came to the conclusion that an institution of higher education cannot change the lineage of its students. But it can implement interventions that increase the odds that first-generation students “get ready,” “get in,” and “get through” by changing the way those students view college and by altering what they do after they arrive.

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