Unpacking Support Systems – “First Generation College Students: Motivations and Support Systems”

As an AVID Coordinator, I’ve spent a great deal of time wondering what mystic potion I could brew that would be the perfect balance of support and independence to safely transport my students from high school graduation in the Spring to the main mall of their chosen college campus in the Fall. But, sadly, like many first generation students across the country, my students have to work very hard to earn the right to set foot on a college campus and even harder to persist through the first year of college. As I discussed this with my wife this week, she encouraged me to revisit the research and “come back when I had a plan”. That gentle admonishment directed me towards “First Generation College Students: Motivations and Support Systems”. 

In “First Generation College Students: Motivations and Support Systems”, the researchers used a case study approach to shed light on the experiences of nine first generation college students enrolled at Texas Tech University (TTU) in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR) at the time of the study and a representative of the first generation student support program at Texas Tech. The researchers conducted individual semi-structured interviews (questions were developed ahead of time, but adjusted as needed during the interview). The data was analyzed using Astin’s Involvement Theory and the Input-environment-Outcome Model. The model requires that when assessing an educational phenomenon, you must look at what a student brings to the table (inputs), what is happening at the time the student is in school (environment) and what the student gains when leaving college (outcomes).

I am highlighting the findings that resonated with me and the work that I do. The research questions below are taken directly from “First Generation College Students: Motivations and Support Systems”, the findings are summarized.

  • What factors led to the first generation students’ enrollment at TTU?
    • Most students credited encouragement from their families, support from high school educators, or self-determination (or some combination of the three) as their reason for enrollment.
  • On what support groups and/or support systems do they depend?
    • Parents – Many students reported that, despite a lack of understanding of the college system, parents are a big source of emotional support.
    • Financial – Some students can rely on their parents for money and many do not work. Students reported finding ways to make finances manageable through scholarships and working. One student reported having to loan money to her family.
    • Friends – Friends from organizations were a source of support for the participants. Many students commented that friends help them to fit in and become a part of the university.
    • Faculty – Four of the nine students shared that they felt comfortable speaking with professors about school issues.

As I reflect on the findings, I notice that within each research question, students are depending upon their support systems. Even when discussing their satisfaction with their college and department within the university, they speak to the level of support and assistance they receive. Admittedly, the sample is small and may not reflect the experience of the typical first generation student, but these students come from different walks of life and attribute their success in school to similar groups.

In thinking of my own students, I wonder if there is more detail in the literature about the nature of these support systems. What makes a parent, friend, or university supportive or not supportive? I’d like to know, quantitatively, what elements of these support systems are leading to success for first generation college students and perhaps even students who are not first generation. From this article, we know that it is not all about institution knowledge or finances, these support systems are impacting students in a deeper way.

I suppose I have more reading to do…. Feel free to leave a reply below!


Irlbeck, E., Adams, S., Akers, C., Burris, S., & Jones, S. (2014). First generation college students: Motivations and support systems. Journal of Agricultural Education, 55(2), 154. doi:10.5032/jae.2014.02154

Image credit: Pixabay




6 thoughts on “Unpacking Support Systems – “First Generation College Students: Motivations and Support Systems”

  1. Well put my dearest colleague… There are many articles that talk about mentoring programs for freshman and definitely first-generation, low-income students. Please check out an article I recently read by Schaderman and Thompson, “Are College Faculty and First-Generation Low Income Students Ready for Each Other?” Check it out and let me know what you think.



      1. This is cool my brother. There is a person at Tarleton that is working on stuff similar to what you’re working on. I will introduce you to her. She has research on this issue from a systemic standpoint. I think that you’re on to something for real though.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so interesting! I wonder what kind of support successful students got from their parents. Then I wonder if that information could be shared with parents of first gen. kids? It must be intimidating to try to help your child through something you yourself are not familiar with. I bet some guidance would be appreciated?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erin, I was actually thinking along the same lines! I was wondering if there were some key elements of a “successful” support system… thinks that we could teach or replicate in our programming!

      But I definitely agree that parents would be interested!



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