Increasing Retention Rates for First-Generation Students


First-generation college students are driven, hardworking, and goal oriented. But nationwide, 33% of them leave school within three years — a far higher stop-out rate than for peers who have parents with college experience, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

That statistic is one reason the results of North Central College’s program to support first-generation students are so striking. Among the first-generation students who entered the Naperville, Illinois, college’s Cardinal First program for first-generation students in 2015, 81% graduated four years later.

Other results also show that Cardinal First is making a difference for first-generation postsecondary students, especially Latino first-generation students, by providing them with a support structure that addresses their needs.

Results From the Cardinal First Program:

  • The average first-to-second year retention rate for all students who participated in Cardinal First is 92%. That compares with 78% for all North Central College students and 61% for first-generation students not participating in the program.
  • The average first-to-second year retention rate for Latino students in Cardinal First is 89%. That compares with 72% for all Latino students and 52% for Latino first-generation students not participating in the program.
  • The average first-to-third year retention rate for all students in Cardinal First is 84%. That compares with 71% for all students and 53% for first-generation students not participating in the program.

Excelencia in Education — a national organization focused on Latino student success in higher education — named Cardinal First one of its top four 2021 Examples of Excelencia.

Why is Cardinal First working? What lessons does it provide for other colleges working to improve persistence and completion for their first-generation students?

To answer those questions, it’s important to understand the challenges that first-generation students face.

First-generation student challenges

While first-generation students benefit from a sense of determination, as well as pride in their academic achievements, being the first in their families to attend college often brings with it feelings of doubt or homesickness that other students may not experience as acutely.

“First-generation students cannot benefit from their parents’ college-going experience — a valuable source of cultural capital that helps students navigate college,” NCES said in its February 2018 report on first-generation students’ college access, persistence, and post-degree outcomes. “This lack of cultural capital negatively affects even those first-generation students who are academically well prepared for college.”

First-generation students disproportionately face circumstances that put them at risk of stopping out. These may include having fewer financial resources and less academic preparation than students who are not first-generation, or having additional responsibilities outside of school, including caregiving or full-time employment.

NCES, analyzing outcomes for first-generation students who began their postsecondary education in 2003–2004, found that 33% left the system without earning a postsecondary credential. That number compares with 26% for peers whose parents had attended some college and 14% for students whose parents had earned a bachelor’s degree.

Defining First-Generation Students

Researchers and educators don’t always define “first-generation students” the same way. In some instances, they define the group as students whose parents never attended college. In others, they define it as students whose parents did not earn a college degree.

For research and comparison purposes, it is important to make clear which definition is being used. At North Central College, where about 4 of every 10 students are identified as first-generation, the category comprises all students who do not have a parent who earned a four-year degree.

First-generation student strengths 

Higher education institutions need to adopt an “asset-based” mindset regarding these students, said Julie Carballo, North Central College’s assistant dean for first-generation, transfer, and veteran initiatives. “The mindset too often is deficit-based, focusing on what [the students] may lack rather than their strengths.”

Carballo added, “While it is true that first-generation students oftentimes do need some additional or different support than their peers whose parents have college degrees, first-generation students are an asset to any campus community. By the time they make it to a college classroom, they have already proven they can overcome obstacles and blaze their own trail.”

In 2018, the strengths of first-generation students were underscored by a Campus Labs analysis of data from its Student Strengths Inventory, which measures students in six noncognitive skills. In this inventory, first-generation students scored higher in academic engagement, educational commitment, and campus engagement.

Cardinal First

North Central College’s Cardinal First program began in 2015.* The program contains several key components:

  • Students receive guidance and chances to network at workshops specially designed for first-year students, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, respectively. First-generation college graduates from the college’s faculty serve as hosts at the events, sharing their experiences and offering themselves as examples for students to follow.
  • After their first year in the program, first-generation students are eligible to become Cardinal First Ambassadors, mentoring younger students. Together, faculty, staff, and students form a network of peers, ensuring that first-generation students have a consistent source of support and answers to their questions.
  • The program provides frequent interactions as well as flexibility. Events include Cardinal First Fridays, a free monthly breakfast or lunch for first-year students that covers basics such as time management, exam preparation, and class registration, and provides advice on stress management and student interactions. Interactive monthly workshops — always with breakfast or lunch included — continue through students’ sophomore, junior, and senior years, and each event is held at several times so students can find a time that works with their schedule.
  • North Central offers Cardinal First Transition for first-generation transfer students in their first semester at the school. This series of four interactive lunch workshops is designed to make students feel comfortable and connected.
  • First-Gen Academic Groups provide a dedicated space for sharing ideas, networking, and discussing opportunities with faculty mentors, most of whom were first-generation students themselves. North Central said this offering is important because research shows that first-generation students are less likely to engage with faculty outside of the classroom.

*North Central College defines first-generation students as students whose parents did not earn a four-year degree.

Cardinal First gave me a support group I didn’t know I needed. It’s something that keeps me engaged, reminds me why I’m at college and that I am not alone.

Andrianna Martinez, Class of 2019. 

After one year of active participation in the program, the participating students are eligible for a renewable $1,000 Cardinal First Scholarship for their remaining years at North Central. To get and remain on the scholarship, they must meet the program’s participation and attendance requirements.

Lessons learned 

“Programs need to be based on the context they are in,” cautioned Excelencia in Education CEO Deborah Santiago. “We look for common threads, common themes for why things work.”

Carballo, the leader of Cardinal First, describes three key elements she believes need to be included in first-generation student programs, with examples of what worked at North Central College:

  • Foster the sense of “you belong here.” Create a strong sense of community through connections big and small. North Central strives to do this through its workshops, mentorships, event-based team-building activities, as well as by highlighting the students and their successes on social media. The college also distributes first-generation “swag,” like Cardinal First stickers, pens, and planners.
  • Leverage your first-generation faculty and staff. North Central has more than 125 faculty and staff members who were the first in their family to attend college. Many volunteer to share their stories and wisdom at workshops and mentor the first-generation students in their departments. All of them place a sign on their door identifying themselves as first generation and inviting first-generation students to connect.
  • Make it last. At North Central, support begins from students’ first day on campus and follows them through graduation. Carballo said the college works hard to ensure that, at every step of their college journey, students learn about resources that will help them thrive on campus and beyond, understand the resources’ value, and know about the advance planning required to access them.

“First-gen students are certainly capable of meeting the high expectations colleges and universities set for their students,” Carballo said. “They can learn the so-called ‘hidden curriculum’ of college and bring fresh perspectives to campus during a time where a diversity of experiences and viewpoints [is] so valued.” 


Additional information


Contact Julie Carballo at North Central College for more information on its Cardinal First program.


Listen to a panel discussion hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education on male first-generation students.