A unique reality: New research highlights how first-gen students and families navigate college

Josh Crespo
Josh Crespo, a freshman at the University of St. Thomas, is a first generation college student. He was a member of a research team that studied first-generation high school students, first generation college students and their parents when it comes to college. (Photo courtesy of Mark Vancleave)

Long before Josh Crespo became a first-generation college student, he wondered if students of color like himself belonged in college.

“… Growing up, that’s the image you have for yourself,” said Crespo, a freshman at the University of St. Thomas.

First-generation students, such as Crespo, and their families experience a unique “first-gen reality” when it comes to college, according to newly published research conducted by students and staff at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis and the University of St. Thomas. The study outlined several major themes that point toward this first-generation reality, including a “hidden curriculum,” college affordability, support and understanding about college.

First-generation college students make up 30 percent of undergraduates in the country, but they are more likely to drop out, enroll part-time and take longer to earn a degree, according to the research.

“Being a first-generation college student, it’s hard because you have no background to it since both of your parents didn’t go to college,” said Gisell Castaneda Garcia, a senior at Cristo Rey who was a member of the research team. “… After doing the research project, it opened my eyes to the fact that I’m not the only one, that there are a lot of people out there, too.”

The study, which was conducted last school year, was funded by a $30,000 Youth Participatory Action Research grant that allowed students who are often researched to become the researchers. The research team included 10 high school students from Cristo Rey, three college students from St. Thomas and a recent alum from both schools, as well as St. Thomas professors and Cristo Rey faculty and staff.

Students on the research team work on the research project. (Submitted photo)

The question they were searching to answer: What type of education and preparation do parents and families of first-generation college students need to best support their first-generation child? The team collected its findings through 388 online surveys and 25 in-depth interviews with first-generation high school students, first-generation college students and parents of first-generation students.

When the students first reviewed existing literature and research on first-generation college students as part of the project, they came back the next day feeling dismayed, according to Crespo.

“The reading and the statistics were really discouraging to us,” Crespo said, “but at the same time it gave us motivation to keep going.”

As they kept going, they found several major themes and created recommendations for first-generation students and their parents.


College affordability is one of the bigger issues that first-generation students face. Families without college experience or degrees are often stuck in jobs with minimum wage and are living paycheck to paycheck. The research found that 90 percent of students said tuition and the cost of college are the most significant barriers when applying to college. More than 90 percent of students’ parents surveyed said that cost is a major factor in the decision process.

Nick Contreraz
Nick Contreraz, a teacher at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and a University of St. Thomas alum, was a faculty co-researcher in the study.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Vancleave)

“The cost of college is grossly expensive now,” said Nick Contreraz, a religion studies teacher at Cristo Rey and a faculty co-researcher, “and first-generation [students] can’t even get in the door, so how are they going to continue on later?”

The research also shows that many first-generation students need support in high school and once they get into college. The study found first-generation high school students need more information about financial aid and college affordability than their second-generation peers because their parents’ understanding of scholarships, financial support and stability can be lacking. The findings show first-generation college students also wish their parents had a better understanding of their college experience to help support them through the college transition and beyond.

The research also says there is a “hidden curriculum” – which college-educated parents pass on to their children when they are in college – that first-generation students don’t receive and have to make up for not knowing.

“It’s a lot of smaller problems that students need help with money-wise, information-wise,” said Castaneda Garcia. “Some people don’t know how to even apply and some schools don’t provide college counselors. Parents too – some parents don’t even know how to help their child.”

But parents want to know more. According to the research, parents want “significantly more knowledge and information” about college, they want it in various forms, such as in-person or online, and they want it in their primary languages.

This research was important because it reached many students who need the help and support but who may not ask for it, according to Castaneda Garcia. She used to fall into the category, she said.

“Mostly the people who don’t go to college are the people who needed the help but didn’t go and seek that help,” Castaneda Garcia said. “And we need people like us going to college, sharing our culture and spreading diversity.”


For Crespo, the college process was a bit easier because his high school, Cristo Rey, worked with his parents to help them understand more, he said.

“That’s why Cristo Rey was such a great school,” Crespo said, “because they always had the idea of underprivileged students having the upper hand and not being left out.”

Crespo first began to look into St. Thomas while on a college visit in eighth grade. He immediately fell in love, he said. Since eighth grade, St. Thomas was his goal.

A goal that he achieved, now that he’s the first in his family to attend college. It’s a big deal to his family, Crespo said.

“We are the ones who are turning the road and making new paths for the future generations,” he said. “You’re going to show that your parents’ sacrifice was worth it.”

As a college student, Crespo has continued to work with the research team to spread the word about the findings (The research has been made public in a report online and in a video). He also participates in a program that mentors at-risk youth, he said.

“I thought this was a great opportunity to build connections with these kids and motivate them to get through high school and on to college,” Crespo said. “Let them know about the research and how I got into college, and [that] they can, too.”