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Supporting First-Generation Students

Learn about first-generation college students at UC San Diego, and how best to support them.

Defining the Population

UC San Diego defines first-generation college students as students with neither parent having a four-year college degree (UCOP definition).

Student Retention and Success Units support first-generation college students through evidence-based support initiatives and programs that are proven to assist students with accessing resources, developing college capital skills and navigating their college journey.



A 2001 NCES study (Choy, 2001, p. xviii) found that while 82 percent of non-first-generation students enrolled in college immediately after finishing high school, only 54 percent of students whose parents had completed high school did, and only 36 percent of students whose parents had less than a high school diploma did.

Historically, first-generation college students — students whose parents have not attended college and/or have not earned a degree (Engle, Bermeo, & O’Brien, 2006) — are more likely to have lower college retention rates and were less likely to complete their academic programs in a timely manner (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004). Additionally, research results reveal that only 26% of first-generation college students will earn a bachelor’s degree whereas their non-first generation peers earn a degree at a rate of 68% (Engle et al., 2006).


  • 42% of all UC undergraduates are first-generation college students. UC enrolls a higher proportion of first-generation undergraduate students than other selective public institutions (27 percent) and selective private institutions (18 percent), and more than the national average for all four-year institutions (36 percent).
  • In 2016, there were 88,242 first-generation undergraduates systemwide, of which over 67,000 entered UC as freshmen while 19,800 began as transfers from California community colleges. An estimated 45 percent of all incoming UC freshmen this fall will be first-generation students.
  • Data on national graduation rates for first-generation students is sparse, but the few studies that exist show a dramatic completion gap between first-generation students and other undergraduates. Recent national studies have found that just 50 percent of all first-generation students, and as few as 11 percent of low income first-generation students, earned a bachelor’s degree after six years. 6,7 UC first-generation students graduate at far higher rates, with around 80 percent of first-generation UC students graduating within six years since 2008. The number of UC first-generation students who graduate in six years is also significantly higher than the national six-year graduation rate for all undergraduates at public institutions, which is about 60 percent.

Source: UC First Generation Student Success at the University of California

UC San Diego

  • At UC San Diego, 38% of the undergraduate student body in fall 2016 identify as first-generation college students (10,675 students).
  • At UC San Diego, first-generation college students have a one-year retention rate similar to their continuing generation peers (Fall 2014 cohort: 94% retention rate for FGCS vs 95% retention rate for non FGCS).
  • According to Student Research and Information, while graduation rates are considered high for both first and continuing generation college students, graduation rates do tend to be higher for those students whose parents had prior college going experience. (Fall 2011 Cohort: 48% four-year graduation rate for FGCS vs. 59% four-year graduation rate for non FGCS.)

Best Practices to Support First-Generation College Students

Higher education researchers Vincent Tinto and Jennifer Engle provided the following recommendations for improving first-generation college student access and success:

  • Improve academic preparation for college
  • Provide additional financial aid for college
  • Increase transfer rates to four-year colleges
  • Ease the transition to college

Strategies that have been shown to help include:

  • Early intervention through bridge and orientation programs
  • Advising, tutoring, and mentoring by faculty and peers
  • Participation in special programs for at-risk populations that “scale down” the college experience
  • Encouraging engagement on the college campus

These strategies are crucial components of many Student Retention and Success Units, demonstrating the institutional commitment that UC San Diego has for first-generation college students.

Resources: Articles, Professional Associations & Other Links