“It’s Cold in Here”: First-Generation Students at American Research Universities

  • Seth C. Snyder
  • Jennifer Trost


Using data from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey, Snyder and Trost analyzed perceptions of campus climate for first-generation college students whose parents had little or no higher education experience. Overall, first-generation students found the campus climate at research universities less welcoming than did their continuing-generation peers. First-generation students were more likely to state that the campus climate did not value, support, welcome, or represent their personal background. These differences between first-generation students and students whose family have greater experience with higher education demonstrate that colleges and universities continue to support the dominant class-centric culture and status quo. The authors challenge institutions to pay attention to their first-generation college students and begin to dismantle the systems that limit positive experiences for first-generation students attending research universities.


  1. Brown, R. D., Clarke, B., Gortmaker, V., & Robinson-Keilig, R. (2004). Assessing the campus climate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students using a multiple perspectives approach. Journal of College Student Development, 45(1), 8–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Chatman, S. (2011a). Factor structure and reliability of the 2011 SERU/UCUES questionnaire core: SERU project technical report. Berkeley, CA: Center for Studies of Higher Education, University of California.Google Scholar
  3. Chatman, S. (2011b). No evidence of substantive non-response bias for the 2011 administration: SERU project technical report. Berkeley, CA: Center for Studies of Higher Education, University of California.Google Scholar
  4. Collier, P. J., & Morgan, D. L. (2008). “Is that paper really due today?”: differences in first-generation and traditional college students’ understandings of faculty expectations. Higher Education, 55(4), 425–446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Douglass, J. A., Thomson, G., & Zhao, C.-M. (2012). The learning outcomes race: The value of self-reported gains in large research universities. Higher Education, 64, 317–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Espinoza, A. (2013). The college experiences of first-generation college Latino students in engineering. Journal of Latino/Latin American Studies, 5(2), 71–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hart, J., & Fellabaum, J. (2008). Analyzing campus climate studies: Seeking to define and understand. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 1(4), 222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hurtado, S., Milem, J., Clayton-Pederson, A., & Allen, W. (1999). Enacting diverse learning environments: Improving the climate for racial/ethnic diversity in higher education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, No. 8. Washington, DC: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development.Google Scholar
  9. Kim, Y. K., & Sax, L. J. (2009). Student–faculty interaction in research universities: Differences by student gender, race, social class, and first-generation status. Research in Higher Education, 50(5), 437–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lehmann, W. (2007). “I just didn’t feel like I fit in”: The role of habitus in university drop-out decisions. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 37(2), 89–110.Google Scholar
  11. Locks, A. M., Hurtado, S., Bowman, N. A., & Oseguera, L. (2008). Extending notions of campus climate and diversity to students’ transition to college. The Review of Higher Education, 31(3), 257–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Rankin, S. R., & Reason, R. D. (2005). Differing perceptions: How students of color and White students perceive campus climate for underrepresented groups. Journal of College Student Development, 46(1), 43–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Reid, M. J., & Moore, J. L., III. (2008). College readiness and academic preparation for postsecondary education: Oral histories of first-generation urban college students. Urban Education, 43(2), 240–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Sherwin, J. (2012). Make me a match: Helping low-income and first-generation students make good college choices. MDRC Policy Brief. New York, NY: MDRC.Google Scholar
  15. Smith, B. (2013). Mentoring at-risk students through the hidden curriculum of higher education. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  16. Smith, J., Pender, M., & Howell, J. (2013). The full extent of student-college academic undermatch. Economics of Education Review, 32, 247–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Soria, K. M. (2015). Welcoming blue collar scholars into the ivory tower: Developing class-conscious strategies for students’ success. Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.Google Scholar
  18. Soria, K. M., & Stebleton, M. J. (2012). First-generation students’ academic engagement and retention. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(6), 673–685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Stebleton, M. J., Soria, K. M., & Huesman, R. L. (2014). First-generation students’ sense of belonging, mental health, and use of counseling services at public research universities. Journal of College Counseling, 17(1), 6–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P. M., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1996). First-generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Research in Higher Education, 37(1), 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Worthington, R. L., Navarro, R. L., Loewy, M., & Hart, J. (2008). Color-blind racial attitudes, social dominance orientation, racial-ethnic group membership and college students’ perceptions of campus climate. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 1(1), 8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seth C. Snyder
    • 1
  • Jennifer Trost
    • 2
  1. 1.Carleton CollegeNorthfieldUSA
  2. 2.University of St. ThomasMinneapolisUSA

Personalised recommendations