Context on First-Generation College Students

I have written several recent posts on first-generation college students, but I want to point out a useful piece of context on that subject.

Some top colleges have been touting self-reported statistics showing that their incoming classes have percentages of first-generation students in the ’teens. In an article in last week’s New York Times, which has been the subject of a few posts and some enjoyable correspondence, we read that 17 percent of students in Brown’s current freshman class are first generation. (The source isn’t given—Brown administrators probably.)

According to the article, Brown defines “first-generation” students as those who come from families in which neither parent had a bachelor degree. How many of the families of today’s college students fit that description? It’s impossible to determine, but data on educational attainment provided by the U.S. Census Bureau can give us a very general idea.

Using the first sub-category in Table 1 (“All Races”), we can get data on the age group most likely to be parents of today’s college freshmen. I define that group as persons aged 40-59.

Of the 84.433 million people in that age group, 27.376 million, or 32%, have at least a bachelor’s degree. So 68% of the parents of today’s college freshman do not. While there are undoubtedly households in which one parent has a degree and one doesn’t, that 68% figure indicates that Brown University officials have little room to boast if 17% of their freshman class are “first gen.”

The other colleges mentioned in the same sentence of that Times article had lower reported percentages of first-gen freshmen than Brown: Dartmouth – 11, Princeton – 12, Yale – 14, Amherst – 15, Cornell – 16. So, again, the degree of social diversity at top private colleges is less than you would expect, based on all the self-congratulation in those quarters.