Nearly a third of all students who apply to college through the online Common App are aiming for a credential their parents never obtained: a bachelor’s degree.
The Common App’s database offers insight into a crucial sector of the nation’s college-bound population. First-generation students, as they are known, come to higher education without the benefit of guidance from mothers and fathers who completed the journey through college themselves.
That’s a significant hurdle for the students and for the schools seeking to recruit and enroll them. But it’s a demographic reality that the first-gen population is huge and likely to grow.
Overall, the Common App reports that 32.5 percent of its roughly 1 million individual applicants in the 2016-17 cycle were first-gen students, defined as those without a parent who “graduated from college/university.” That share has held steady for the past five years.
About 90 percent of Common App users are seeking to enroll in college for the first time. The rest are transfer applicants, who are slightly more likely to be first-Gen students.
Looking more closely, the pattern holds for public and private four-year colleges.
- Of 617,441 freshman applicants to public colleges, 194,064 were first-gen. That’s 31 percent.
- Of 739,456 freshman applicants to private colleges, 228,108 were first-gen. That’s also 31 percent.
It’s important to note that many apply to both public and private schools. Also, the Common App does not cover the entire spectrum of four-year schools. Neither the University of California nor California State University uses the Common App, to name just two public systems with major numbers of first-gen students. Nor does the University of Texas System.
But the Common App does represent more than 700 four-year schools, encompassing the Ivy League, some prominent state flagships and a host of other institutions of greater and lesser degrees of selectivity. It is more than 40 years old.
Another online application portal — the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success — represents about 130 selective colleges and universities. Most of those schools also use the Common App. A few, including the University of Maryland at College Park, only use the coalition. The coalition, which debuted in 2016-17, says one of its primary goals is to help disadvantaged students from low-income or first-gen backgrounds. In its first cycle, the coalition said it drew about 39,800 applicants to 46 schools. About one-fifth were first-gen.
Federal data on first-gen students is somewhat limited. The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study found that 34 percent of undergraduates surveyed in 2011-12 had parents who never went to college, 38 percent had parents who attained a bachelor’s degree, and 28 percent had parents with some college experience.