Sections Describing Our Practice

  • Services for Higher Education Institutions
  • News: Stanford University Creates First-Generation-Student Success Office
  • Graduation Rate Improvement Formula
  • Setting Up a First-Generation-Student Resource Center
  • What Students Say: Outsiders to Learning
  • The Future Scene, Jeff Davis, Ph.D.

                                   (Scroll down to locate each section.)

              Phone: 707 544-5765, (cell) 707 478-4926. email:

Section 1: Services for Higher Education Institutions

College Success for Nontraditional Students provides consulting services for all types of higher education institutionstwo-year and four-year, public and private, and not-for-profit and for-profit. Although the "six-year graduation rate" is mentioned in many of our documents and does not directly pertain to two-year institutions, the concept of retention, of course, is common to all.

If you are a student affairs professional or administrator, you know the name of the game today is retention. Retention, retention, retention . . . and graduation. How are you going to improve retention at your institution? How are you going to improve your six-year graduation rate?

Business leaders, politicians, and parents are all asking the same questions. How come only 50 percent of the students who start at your institution graduate six years later? Isn’t this a waste of money? Isn’t this a sign of inefficiency. These questions are not going away. In fact, they likely will be asked with more ferocity in the upcoming years.

What We Do on Your Site

  • Perform workshops to train your faculty and staff
  • Publicize the need to assist the first-generation student population on your campus
  • Work with your institutional research staff in order to identify your first-generation student population
  • Work with your student-support-services staff to target assistance to first-generation students
  • Set up a first-generation-student resource and advising center 
  • Design a three year plan that will increase your institution's overall retention and graduation rates
  • Write federal TRIO grant proposals that will bring money to your campus for the purpose of supporting nontraditional students

Easy Calculation

There may be no easy fixes when it comes to retention, but there is an easy calculation: First-generation college students graduate at half the rate of their non first-generation counterparts. This is the finding of what is still the gold standard in terms of research into the academic success of first-generation students: Chen, X., & Carroll, C. D. First-Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts. National Center for Education Statistics (2005).

Chen and Carroll found that first-generation students enrolling in American postsecondary institutions in 1992 were only half as likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree eight years later than their non first-generation counterparts—34.0 percent to 68.0 percent, respectively.

Combine this poor performance with the reality that more than 50 percent of the students who started college this fall semester 2011 are likely first-generation students, and you come up with an easy calculation, a calculation that student affairs professionals and administrators should start communicating to their bosses: Targeting support services to our first-generation student population will raise our institution’s overall six-year graduation rate more efficiently and more quickly than anything else we can do. 

Section Two: News

Some Institutions Are Catching On

At the beginning of 2011 Stanford University in California created a new position called Director of Diversity and First-Generation Programs. The new director, Tommy Lee Woon, will be responsible for building collaborative partnerships within student affairs, with colleagues in the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, as well as with colleagues across the campus and within the student body.

Stanford has a six-year graduation rate of over 95 percent and a first-generation student population of only 15 percent. The appointment of Woon isn’t so much part of an effort to raise Stanford’s graduation rate, then, as it is evidence of the recognition that this is an important student category.

It’s ironic, of course, that highly selective universities like Stanford are some of the first institutions that are catching on to the research and publications that describe the plight of first-generation college students. Institutions like Stanford don’t really need to do anything new, of course, because as mentioned in the previous paragraph they graduate their first-generation students at very high rates. 

So What’s Going On Here?

What’s going on is that universities like Stanford are paying attention to their first-generation students because they know, in the politically charged environment that higher education institutions now find themselves in, that publicizing the presence of first-generation students not only shows that they are interested in student success but that they are interested in something else: Diversity.

And good for Stanford. First-generation students really do add to the diversity of a college campus. These students arrive with a difference view of college going than their more privileged counterparts. They bring a different lived experience and a different view of the world as well.

More institutions should follow Stanford’s lead. If Stanford can create a brand new position charged with improving the experience of a group of students that makes up only 15 percent of its entire student population (a population that it already graduates at very high rates like the rest of the Stanford student population), it’s hard to understand the strategic plan of other, perhaps less selective, institutions that don’t even know how many first-generation students are in attendance from year to year. Especially when you consider that at many colleges and universities first-generation students are in the majority, or close to it.

Section Three: Graduation Rate Improvement Formula

College Success for Nontraditional Students believes that for most four-year postsecondary institutions the easiest and quickest way to improve your overall six-year graduation rate is to follow our recommendations for how to support first-generation students. These recommendation are derived from Dr. Davis's book The First-Generation Student Experience.

This section presents the formula for how to calculate the improvement your institution will realize.

  • You need four figures to start:

1. Your institution’s most recent, overall six-year graduation rate.
2. The total number of graduates for the year corresponding to the most recent   

     six-year graduation rate (#1 above).
3. The percentage of first-generation students attending your institution (use the

     national 35.0 percentage as a base figure if you don’t know).
4. The six-year graduation rate for first-generation students attending your institution

     (use the national 34.0 percentage as a base figure if you don’t know).

  • The below calculations use a fictional four-year university, College A, as a model:

1. College A’s most recent overall, six-year graduation rate: 50.0 percent.
2. Total number of graduates for the year corresponding to the most recent six-year

     graduation rate (50.0 percent): 600.
3. The percentage of first-generation students in attendance: 40.0 percent.
4. The six-year graduation rate for first-generation students attending College A: 34.0

     percent (national figure).

First Step: If the total number of graduates is 600, this means 1,200 first-year students started attending College A six years previous. Those 1,200 first-year students graduated at a rate of 50 percent, yielding 600 graduates.

Second Step: 1,200 first-year students started attending College A six years previous, and 40 percent were first-generation students; therefore, 480 of those 1,200 first-year students were first-generation students. This also means, of course, that 720 of those 1,200 first-year students were non first-generation students.

Third Step: If 480 first-generation students started at College A six years previous, only 163 of those students graduated six years later (at a rate of 34 percent).

Fourth Step: If 163 of the total 600 graduates were first-generation students, 437 were non first-generation students.

Fifth Step: If 437 of the 720 non first-generation students starting at College A six years previous graduated six years later, this means College A’s non first-generation students graduated at a rate of 61 percent.

Conclusion: College A’s non first-generation students graduated at a rate of 61 percent, and College A’s first-generation students graduated at a rate of 34 percent. In other words, if all of College A’s students were non first-generation students, their overall six-year graduation rate would be 11 percentage points higher than the current 50 percent.

What if College A instituted a program to support its first-generation student population better? What if that program resulted in their first-generation students graduating at a modest 75 percent of the rate at which its non first-generation students graduate (remember, based on the national statistics, they currently graduate at 50 percent of the rate of their non first-generation counterparts)?

75 percent of the 61 percent rate at which College A’s non first-generation students graduate is 46 percent. Rather than the current 34 percent rate, then, as a result of College A’s first-generation student support program, their first-generation students now graduate at a rate of 46 percent.

  • To determine College A’s new overall six-year graduation rate, three of the four starting figures remain the same. The fourth changes from 34 percent to 46 percent:

1. College A’s most recent overall, six-year graduation rate: 50.0 percent.
2. Total number of graduates for the year corresponding to the most recent six-year

     graduation rate (50.0 percent): 600.
3. The percentage of first-generation students in attendance: 40.0 percent.
4. The six-year graduation rate for first-generation students attending College A: 46.0


  • Now, let’s apply the formula:

First Step: 1,200 first-year students (same as before).

Second Step: 480 first-generation students starting six years previous, and 720 non first-generation students starting six years previous (same as before).

Third Step: 221 of those 480 first-generation students now graduate six years later (rather than 163).

Fourth Step: 437 non first-generation students graduate (same as before).

Fifth Step: College A’s non first-generation students graduate at a rate of 61 percent (same as before).

Conclusion: College A’s overall six-year graduation rate is now 55 percent, instead of 50 percent.

Improving a four-year postsecondary institution’s graduation rate by two or three percent in three years is outstanding. Improving it by five percent in that amount of time is unheard of!

By enlisting the help of College Success for Nontraditional Students, your institution’s graduation rate can improve this quickly. And it’s not difficult or expensive.

Realize that this five percent increase was accomplished by improving the performance of College A’s first-generation student population to only 75 percent of the performance of its non first-generation student population. The goal, of course, is to allow first-generation students to graduate at the same rate as non first-generation students. This discrepancy has been allowed to go on too long. College Success for Nontraditional Students can help your decrease your institution’s discrepancy now.

Section Four: Setting Up a First-Generation-Student Resource Center

Having to address retention and graduation rate issues can cause institutional paralysis. Improvement in this area can’t be measured in one semester, everyone knows, or even one year. Faced with the necessity of a long-term commitment many institutions hesitate or even turn to other issues that appear to offer a quicker return on investment of time and resources. College Success for Nontraditional Students knows that postsecondary institutions are under pressure to show results, and we have designed our consulting services to do just that. The truth is that supporting first-generation students is the most cost effective way to improve overall retention and graduation rates.

First, research shows that simply publicizing the existence of the first-generation student demographic category can improve performance. Although the category has attracted more attention in the last five years or so, many campus stake holders, including most students, don’t know what it is. Most first-generation students, for example, have heard the terms low-income students, ethnic minority students, and students with disabilities, but many have not heard of the first-generation student group, and what’s more, many don’t realize that they are members of it. Recognizing their own status, the research shows, assists the development of a college student identity and begins the process of improving academic performance.

Second, at the same time as institutions are getting started with specific support programs, they can communicate to the campus and surrounding community that they are addressing diversity. The diversity issue has captured the attention of policy makers and contributors in a way that the first-generation college student issue has not. Progressive institutions (see the Stanford University example above in “News”) have recognized the value of publicizing the presence of first-generation students. The good will that such institutions garner is substantial and immediate.

College Success for Nontraditional Students recommends that the best way to initiate progress as quickly as possible is to set up and publicize a First-Generation-Student Resource Center in your institution’s Advising Center or Learning Center. We have the ability and experience to help you do this.

First Step. The “center” need be nothing more than a desk with signage and a cabinet to house written informational material at first. It will develop as the long-term initiative to support first-generation college students develops.

Second Step. Initiate a campus information campaign to encourage students to sign up at the center identifying themselves as first-generation college students. (For the relatively small number of institutions that already identify and count first-generation students, sign up can be automated.) This will enable you to build a first-generation student database, with names and ID numbers.

Third Step. At sign up, students receive an informational packet that describes the first-generation student experience and the typical difficulties first-generation students face while trying to earn a four-year degree. The packet will also describe how to access campus services for help addressing these difficulties.

Fourth Step. With the identification information gathered at the First-Generation Student Resource Center, create an email listserve for first-generation students only. This listserve will communicate information and activities designed to make sure first-generation students overcome typical difficulties and achieve a timely graduation.

This is just a start, of course. As the initiative to support first-generation students develops on your campus, the Resource Center grows and becomes the communications hub that connects first-generation students to specific academic support services, to campus events, and, most importantly, connects first-generation students to each other. Remember, finding out that there are many other first-generation students on campus goes a long way toward improving retention and performance.

Section Five: What Students Say

Outsiders to Learning

Dr. Davis’s book, The First-Generation Student Experience, includes 14 narratives written by first-generation college students describing their experiences at Sonoma State University in California. Typically, the spark that instigated the desire to write in these students was a self-revelation: They finally realized that they were first-generation college students. They had not thought of themselves this way before, many of them said, and when they did start thinking of themselves this way, certain of their experiences as college students made more sense to them.

This kind of insight is reported again and again by first-generation college students. Some of them have described it with anecdotes, many of which Dr. Davis has collected over the years. Here is one of his favorites:

“When I was in high school I had a friend whose parents were both highly educated. One was a lawyer and the other worked in social services, I believe. I would go to my friend’s house after school once in a while, and we would hang out. One time we were lounging in the family room, which had a couple of large book shelves full of books. I went over to the shelves and picked up a book at random and flipped through the pages. I don’t even remember what the book was about, but what did catch my attention was all the writing in it. There were notes on many of the pages, almost every other page. My friend came over and said that it was a book one of her parents saved from college. I told her that at my house we didn’t have very many books, and that they were treated almost like precious objects. No one in my family would think to write in them.”

Anecdote Analysis

Upon first glance this anecdote would appear to suggest that first-generation student families don’t have very many books in the house. This is true, of course; first-generation student families do own fewer books than families with a history of college attendance. The significance of this anecdote does not end there, however, not by a long shot.

Next we notice that the books owned by families with a history of college attendance have more written notes in them than the books owned by the families of first-generation students. This student said she thought the reverse would be true. She thought her friend’s family would have more respect for books, that the condition of their books would be even more pristine than the condition of the few books in her own home. It wasn’t until she entered college, she said, that she found out that it was common practice to write notes in books.

Although the complicated reaction to writing in books this first-generation student demonstrates is interesting, the real significance of her anecdote requires more analysis. At the time, the student felt the physical act of writing in the book was transgressive. She thought this was a violation of what she regarded as proper behavior: For her, the college text book was a powerful symbol of the result of learning, not a representation of the process of learning. Take not, however, that she had not yet been introduced to the culture of college going. She imagined, at this early stage in her development that the rules prohibited such behavior. For members of the culture of college, like her friend and her friend’s family, written notes signify a certain kind of relationship with books, an educated relationship. It signifies a different orientation toward learning than what she had witnessed growing up in her own household. Writing in a book demonstrates an engaged relationship with the book’s content and ideas, among other things. Conceptually, it elevates the reader to a level closer to that of the author, almost as if the reader is involved in a dialogue with the author.

First-generation students have to be shown how to orient themselves relative to the various components of the college environment, to professors, to other students, and especially to learning itself. College students write in textbooks because they are learning how to think along with the ideas being described. The notes are not for revisiting at a later date so much, that is to say, as they are evidence in the present time that the student is becoming an insider to learning. They are evidence that the student is becoming a member of the culture of college.

Helping first-generation students construct a college student identity is key to improving their academic performance. Not enough attention has been paid to this development process in the research literature and on college campuses. Non first-generation students have been constructing a college student identity for years. The goal of College Support for Nontraditional Students is to promote this kind of identity development in every student, regardless of family background.

Section Six: The Future Scene, Jeff Davis, Ph.D.

Enrollment management and retention experts have been leading the charge for more institutional research into the demographic makeup of student populations for some time now. The new higher education accountability movement requires that schools take more precise action to improve retention and graduation rates, and schools cannot take precise action without gathering precise data.

To meet the demand for data, many institution officers are starting to take a closer look at first-generation student status. Driven by the same forces compelling institutions to more thoroughly research their student populations, understanding first-generation college students better, it is hoped, will lead to improved student satisfaction and increased graduation rates.

The American postsecondary system will see an increase in the number of first-generation students entering the system in the next ten years or so. My book and other researchers are sounding the alarm and describing strategies for improving the persistence and success of students in this demographic category.

As has already been mentioned on this web page, first-generation students earn bachelor’s degrees at half the rate of their non first-generation counterparts, so enrollment managers need to know that enrolling more first-generation students will have a negative impact on the graduation rate, unless, that is, the institution also makes the commitment to better support these students.

Making the commitment to support first-generation students today will not only improve graduation rates relatively quickly but will also prepare institutions for the new 21st century college student just beginning to arrive on campuses across the nation. There is much to be gained by reading the experience of first-generation college students as a synecdoche for the experience of all college students as we move further into the 21st century.

The quality of the barriers to success that first-generation students have faced for the last 40 years are similar to the quality of the barriers that all prospective college students will be facing in the near future, not because all college students are first-generation students, of course, but because all traditionally-aged students will have to interact with organizational forms and institutional concepts that were created for their grandparents and great grandparents, not for them.

As we know, postsecondary organizational forms and institutional concepts are very slow to change. They are changing, no question, but are they changing fast enough for the new generation of students—who are radically different from their grandparents and great grandparents?

A Period of Radical Change

The higher education system is beginning a period of radical change. Some observers have dubbed this period as the end of the “Access Era” and the beginning of the “Success Era.” We can see Success Era themes in the new emphasis on enrollment management, retention, and graduation rates.

The Access Era, starting with the GI Bill and then the Higher Education Act of 1965, has reached its peek, I believe, with nontraditional students no longer actively prevented from accessing the system and acquiring a postsecondary education. Although the Access Era should not be considered over until all people have easy access to a higher education, I do think it behooves postsecondary educators to pay more attention to the individuals who are attending class, rather than the individuals who are not. Now that nontraditional students like first-generation students are able to attend colleges and universities in greater numbers, we have to start ramping up their success.

As we know, the statistics on nontraditional students are not pretty. Ethnic minority students, low-income students, and first-generation students all lag far behind traditional students in terms of college success.

I believe progressive colleges and universities will be instituting significant change in basic organizational forms and institutional concepts in order to keep up with the new college student in the Success Era, first-generation or otherwise. The influence of contemporary information and communication technology and other factors is changing the way young people learn, as many experts have observed. The following chart information helps to put the disparate elements of the contemporary scene in focus:

Access Era

In Phase I of the Access era, the modernist conception of the college student figured the student as a blank slate. The idea was that this blank slate arrived at the institution ready for the college or university to write or install a more or less uni-dimensional college-student identity. (Of course, this installation process assumed that the student had been raised in a household with a history of college attendance, which undergirded the “blank” slate, and thereby made being a successful college student significantly more difficult for first-generation students.)

In Phase II of the Access era, the postmodernist conception of the college student still figured the student as a blank slate. The idea was that culture installs a multidimensional identity and that college moderates its continued installation. (Because this concept of culture assumed, again, that the student had been raised in a household with a history of college attendance, first-generation students did not fare any better.)

Success Era

In the Success Era, the post-postmodernist conception of the college student, if you will, no longer figures the student as a blank slate. Students arrive at the institution with a multidimensional identity. Due to contemporary information and communication technology and other reasons, students are now arriving with a radically different orientation toward learning. In short, they are arriving as information receivers and transmitters. College installs a filter, so to speak, so students can become more relevant information receivers and transmitters. (Now that students are no longer figured as blank slates, first-generation students may not be at such a disadvantage, but this remains to be seen.)

Philosophical Orientation    

Access Era I: Modernist    
Access Era II: Postmodernist    
Success Era: Post-Postmodernist

Student As Viewed By Educational Establishment

Access Era I: Blank slate    
Access Era II: Blank slate    
Success Era: Not a blank slate

Purpose of College According to Educational Establishment    

Access Era I: College installs a uni-dimensional identity in student.    
Access Era II: Culture installs a multidimensional identity in student, and then college
     moderates its continued installation.    
Success Era: College installs a filter that facilitates the self-installation of a
     multidimensional identity in student.

First-Generation Student Success    

Access Era I: First-generation students are not succeeding.    
Access Era II: First-generation students are still not succeeding.    
Success Era: First-generation students experience success?

The Success Era is being ushered in by coming together of three major themes: (1) the higher education accountability movement, (2) the necessity of improving the college success of nontraditional students, and (3) the new 21st century college student and her/his new orientation toward learning. The best way to address the immediate concerns of a higher education system in transition and to prepare that same system for the future is to understand the experience of those students who are the first in their families to get a college degree. They can be the set of instructions for how to get from the Access Era to the Success Era and, at the same time, the product of those instructions.

Conclusion: Reading the first-generation student experience is one way postsecondary institutions can prepare for the future.

Jeff Davis, Ph.D.

               Phone: 707 544-5765, (cell) 707 478-4926. email: