Monday, October 22, 2012

First Generation Serving Institutions - FGSIs

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Coffman Distinguished Professor
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

This article proposes creating a new college and university classification: First Generation Serving Institutions (FGSIs).  This would reflect both an important segment of colleges and respect an important college going population in the US.  Campuses with special missions are an honored part of the higher education landscape, and recognizing that some campuses serve a large percentage of first generation students is important. 

There are many ways to classify colleges and universities.  The Higher Education Act of 1965 defined Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), and the Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) have been a classification since the American Indian Higher Education Consortium was founded in 1972.  Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) is not an official institutional classification but is widely used in scholarship. 

First-generation students have been on campuses since the beginning of post-secondary education, members of this group have garnered recent attention in the US.  Often called the invisible minority, first-generation students are on every campus of every kind, and some campuses have more than others.  Some campuses have enough to be considered First Generation Serving Institutions.

Defining First Generation Students

There are at least three competing definitions for first-generation student:
1)      Both parents have at most a high school diploma and neither has any experience in any post-secondary institution.  This includes 44.1% percent of the population over 25 according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2010).
2)      One or both parents has at least some experience in college and neither parent has a two year college degree, or higher.  This includes 60% percent of the adult population over 25 according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2010).
3)      The binary idea of first generation should be expanded to include multiple levels of parental education using the following, or similar, list:
a.       Some high school, no diploma
b.      High school diploma, no experience in any post-secondary institution
c.       Partial college (at least one year), no degree
d.      Associate’s degree
e.       Bachelor’s or graduate degree

I propose here, for the purposes of defining First Generation Serving Institutions, accepting the most conservative and most widely used definition.  The U.S. Department of education defines first-generation students as those “whose parents never enrolled in post-secondary education” (U.S. Department of Education, 1998, p. v).  It should not pass the reader’s notice that there is an overlap between first-generation students and minority students because of the historically low rates of post-secondary education participation and degree completion of people who are ethnic minorities in the US.

Defining First Generation Serving Institutions

I propose that if at least 50% of the undergraduate students enrolled at a 4-year college or university are first-generation, having parents with no post-secondary experience, then that campus is an FGSI.  50% would mean that there are a majority of first generation students on campus and is twice the percent of all students enrolled in 4-year colleges in 2007-2008 who had parents with a high school diploma or less. 

Table 1
Percent of adult population and college students by parental educational attainment in 2007-2008

Parental education
US population over 25
2-year public college students
4-year public and private college students
High school diploma or less
Some postsecondary education, no degree
Bachelor’s degree or higher
(U.S. Census, 2010, Table 1; U.S. Department of Education, 2010, Table 3.11)

For comparison purposes note that according to the U.S. government HSIs must enroll at least 25% Hispanic full-time equivalent undergraduate students.  To be a Title I K-12 school there must be around 70% of the students eligible for free or reduced lunch.  The precise criteria for a Title I school are dynamic, political, and regional.  Everyone is serious about Title I criteria because supplemental resources are available to Title I schools.  Perhaps the U.S. and state Departments of Education should consider supplemental resources for FGSIs.

Community colleges have been described as access institutions, which is a code word for First Generation Serving Institutions.  The criteria to be a First Generation Serving Community College (FGSCC) should probably be higher than for a FGSI because they already enroll, in the aggregate, 40% first-generation students while 4-year institutions, in the aggregate, enroll only 25% first-generation students.

Second Generation Serving Institutions

SGSIs can similarly be defined using this same 50% rate for student attendance.  Second-generation students have parents with a bachelor’s degree or higher.  While this title can be seen as elitist, and consequently pejorative, it is a description of the reality that 52.7% of students at all U.S. private colleges and universities and 49.3% of students at ass U.S. public colleges and universities were second generation in 2007-2008 (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).  The economy has probably affected these percentages during the past 4 years in interesting ways.  A more generous criteria, for example 70% of second-generation students, will reduce the number of SGSIs considerably, but the list of SGSIs still matches the list of selective universities.

A Proxy Measure to be an FGSI

I propose that as a proxy for a 50% direct measure of parental education that we can use 40% percent of students on a campus who have a Pell Grant, which are designated for students from low income homes.  A 20% Pell Grant recipient level will work as an approximate dash board indicator for an SGSI.  Not every college and university collects parental education information and it not easily available in a public data base.  While parental education is reported on the FASFA not every student completes a FASFA. However, every school collects data on Pell Grants and that data is available for each campus at on the Financial Aid tab. 

A 40% Pell Grant recipient level is an approximate value since the relationship between Pell Grant status and generation status is moderate but positive, and the relationship between family income and parental educational attainment is high and positive.  Until colleges and universities report their first-generation student percents the Pell Grant percents will serve as a approximate dash board indicator.  

Whether or not the Pell Grant percent is a good approximate measure of the percent of first generation students on campus is a matter for research, and the 40% level is only speculation at this point.  On my campus in 2011 42% of students had Pell Grants and over half of our students were first generation. 

The Down Side of Being an FGSI

Being an HBCU has a high prestige value.  Being an HSI has a high prestige value.  Being a TCU has a high prestige value.  Being an HBCU, an HSI, or a TCU brings the opportunity to garner resources dedicated to the populations being served.  Being an FGSI has a low prestige value and brings no opportunities for resources.  First generation students are more likely to be minority students, more likely than other students to have low standardized test scores, more likely than other students to have academic deficits, and so on.  Typically first generation students have gone to poorer quality elementary, middle, and high schools than second generation students, and the results of poor academic preparation play out as an academic challenge for both the campus and for the student (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).

Graduation rates for first generation students are lower than for second generation students so the FGSIs will have a lower graduation rate than a Second Generation Serving Institutions (SGSIs).  Federal, State, and accrediting body emphasis on college graduation rates punishes FGSIs because of this emphasis on retention and graduation rates.  It may be the case that an institution classifies as both an HBCU, or an HSI, or a TCU and a FGSI.  I will leave the implications of this to the reader.

Institutional prestige, and the consequent reflected prestige, is important to students, faculty members, and administrators.  Even though educating all students has a high value in the US educational system being an FGSI is not high prestige.  Consequently, I would expect some resistance from administrators in identifying their campus as an FGSI, lest that classification diminish the perceived prestige of a campus in the eyes of people more concerned with prestige than with the promise of education and student learning.  Identifying as an FGSI may deter second-generation students from enrolling, but that is a matter for research and not for speculation.  Similarly identifying as a SGSI may deter first-generation students from enrolling, and the research indicates that this is the case given the low percentage of Pell Grant students at highly selective colleges (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2012).

The Up Side of Being an FGSI

Access, opportunity, and ethnic and social class diversity are the characteristics of the FGSI.  The promise of a higher paying job, of a job with benefits, of better working conditions, of access to graduate and professional education are some of the promises of college.  By serving first-generation students FGSI campuses are filling the US public education promise. 

Recognizing this new category of institution can help move the conversation about post-secondary education forward.  Should additional resources be dedicated to FGSIs? What are the implications of designating campuses as FGSIs or SGSIs?


U.S. Census Bureau (2010). Educational Attainment in the United States: 2010 - Detailed Tables. Retrieved from

U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, (2012). CollegeNavigator. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics. (1998). First-generation students: Undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in post-secondary education. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics (2010). Web tables: Profile of undergraduate Students 2007-2008. Retrieved from  (Table 3.11)

Comments:  A Google search for the phrase “first generation serving institution” revealed no pages on October 20, 2012.  Nowhere on the Internet indexed by Google did that specific phrase occur.  Other search engines produced the same result.  Without the quotation marks the Google search returned over 23,300,000 pages.  

I am proud to teach at an FGSI and my pride is part of why I developed the idea of First Generation Serving Institution.  Even though I only teach graduate students, the composition of our undergraduate student body creates a mix of students and a diversity that makes our campus interesting and makes it an excellent place to teach and learn higher education leadership. 

My colleague Dr. Catherine Tucker suggested the name Title I College, which has merit and implies that this classification is or should be associated with resources. 

No comments: