First generation college students are the first in
their families to go to college; neither of their parents have a
college degree. When these students register for distance learning
courses, they experience additional challenges than those encountered
by on-campus first generation students. Characteristically, first
generation online students do not starkly differ from on-campus
first generation students, but the challenges they face are compounded
for the online students, who often have limited if any access to
student services and academic support.
Studies show that a primary variable for first generation students’
success is the degree to which their participation in higher education
is influenced by family, work, and other “daily life”
responsibilities. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement,
CCSSE, is designed to help community colleges assess their progress
toward key goals. Frequencies of the 2006 CCSSE reveal that first
generation students throughout the country perceive an overwhelming
support of their academic careers from their family (67.4%). A report
released by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA,
First in My Family (2007) reveals trends of first generation
students from 1971-2005. Report findings are similar to those in
CCSSE: 47% of first generation students cited parental influence
as a very important reason for attending college.
More first generation students also worked at least 20 hours per
week their senior year of high school compared to non-first-generation
students, and over half anticipated working to pay for college (HERI,
2007). First generation students indicated grants and scholarships
(38.8%) and personal income and savings (40.2%) as major sources
for paying their tuition in college. A majority of first generation
student respondents were not married (36.4%), yet nearly half (42.9%)
had children living with them. Respondents also indicated that working
full-time (58.3%), caring for dependents (53.3%), and lack of finances
(70.8%) were likely issues that would force their withdrawal from
classes or their colleges. (CCSSE 2006)
The dichotomy exists that while participation in higher education
is a priority for families without a history of higher education
attendance, responsibilities related to work and family negatively
influenced these students’ participation in higher education.
CCSSE data also reflects that student services such as academic
advising (66.4%), financial aid advising (68.3%) and availability
of computer labs (63.3%) as very important to first generation students
(2006). In her article for Diverse Online, Shilpa Banerji
discusses the HERI report, emphasizing first generation students’
dire need for assistance in navigating the admission and financial
aid process. Assistance to get in the door is primary, but keeping
them enrolled is crucial. Banjeri recommends a supportive environment
and access to college-based support services. ( 2007).
The recommendation is even more important for first generation
online students. “Institutional support and services dictate
the success or failure of a distance education program. While individual
departments and instructors must uphold their end, institutional
mechanisms assume a highly significant role,” says Elizabeth
Buchanan in her article, “Going the Extra Mile: Serving Distance
Education Students” (2000). Adding the “distance”
component to the challenges faced by first generation learners decreases
their potential to succeed in an online class or program. These
students face additional challenges including access to reliable
internet service, skills to utilize online support services and/or
software, and social/psychological skills to navigate the higher
education system. A report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating
Board reveals the state’s drop rate in face-to-face community
and technical college on-campus classes at 18% compared to 25% for
distance learners. At universities, the contrast is smaller, 10%
for face-to-face classes and 14% for community and technical colleges
(Borcoman and Lemoine, 2007).
Many variables involved in the success of online students—family,
job, and other personal responsibilities—are out of the hands
of institutions, but navigating college systems, obtaining administrative
information, and academic guidance are among the most “challenging
obstacles, and often lead to the high attrition rates associated
with distance learning. Institutions must take precautions to avoid
such attrition, and ultimately, the collapse and failure of their
distance programs” (Buchanan, 2000). Having identified the
factors commonly important for the success of first generation and
online students, institutions must take action to provide first
generation online students avenues for accessing important college
services—admissions, financial aid, advising, tutoring, career
counseling, and job placement—and perhaps more importantly,
to encourage student engagement with these services.
Among the first challenges these students face is navigating the
system. They don’t have personal resources—people in
their social circles—to guide them through institutional processes.
They may not have skills to manage their learning; and their attentions
are divided among their personal, work, and school responsibilities.
While the same is true of many on-campus first generation students,
the online student has the added challenge of being on campus for
a limited time or not at all. Unless the institution makes services
and its people available online, the first generation student
is handicapped. Beyond making these services available is the challenge
to engage the students—to make them active participants and
users of the services.
How can schools change the status-quo? The solution incorporates
institutional members, processes, and technologies. Individuals
critical to creating supporting environments for first generation
online students include: admissions assistants, financial aid advisors,
academic and/or faculty advisors, retention specialists, tutors,
technical assistants, counselors, librarians, ombudspersons, book
store representatives, and administration. Whether distance education
departments are centralized or de-centralized, people and services
must be available to these students.
First generation online students need advocates—not just
someone in charge of answering an email or phone call, but people
dedicated to improving their college experience. Who is responsible
for providing assistance with registration, financial aid, academic
advising, tutoring, technical support and the like? How and when
are they available? Are these persons familiar with the profile
of the first generation online student? Do they have resources available
to provide online support, for recommending and/or changing internal
processes to facilitate things for these learners—to be advocates
for change? Do they have strategies for introducing students to
college processes and teaching them to self- advocate?
Some institutions designate particular representatives from the
various student services offices to provide support for their online
learners—a highly commendable practice. But smaller institutions
may be challenged to do this if they have few or singular staff
assigned particular duties. Smaller colleges, and colleges with
increasing first generation online student populations may find
it necessary—and cost efficient—for whole departments
in student services divisions to receive the cross-training necessary
to provide these students assistance with their “level-one”
questions. Online students especially, do not have the time to be
passed from one person to another—on the phone, email, or
otherwise—to get answers to their questions. Ultimately, institutions
that insist on maintaining the status-quo “silo” model
of service will have less-satisfied clients than those that share
information across departments.
Administrative leaders—Vice-Presidents, Provosts, Deans and
Directors of distance education programs are at once the advocates
most removed from and closest to first generation online students.
These individuals have access to data that informs necessary change
in policy, procedure, and practice that impacts the success of first
generation online students. It’s their responsibility to provide
the vision and strategic direction for the evolution of the services
institutions provide. Whether the colleges serve a few hundred students
or tens of thousands, administrators must not lose sight of the
details that impact students’ success while they work to further
more global institutional goals. Collectively and individually,
every first generation online student is a measure of their success.
Encouraging First Contacts
Fundamental to the success of every first generation online student
is a positive first experience with the institution. Colleges must
not underestimate the value of personal contact when providing support
for online students. Knowledge-Base queries can be very useful for
providing answers to FAQs and general questions, but students want
to know they can talk to a human being if necessary. First generation
students in particular will need the support and encouragement from
people at the institution. They will need to feel that meeting their
needs is important to the institution and know they are not alone
just because they are not on campus.
Admissions assistants often are the first points of contact for
this population, so it is critical that they have sufficient and
up-to-date knowledge of institutional practice and procedure and
of distance education department contacts and programs. These people
not only assure students fill out applications appropriately, they
represent the institution’s commitment to the students’
Financial Aid advisors are frequently next in line to communicate
with the first generation student population. Many institutions
have students submit Financial Aid applications online, and first
generation online students will face many of the same challenges
with the application as their on-campus counterparts. Most frequently
asked questions first generation students have revolve around tax
• Why do you need my parents’ W-2 information?
• Are parents’ W-2’s necessary if I file independently?
• Will my parents be responsible for paying back my loans
if I use their W-2 information?
Subsequent to completing the online application, first generation
online students count on financial aid advisors to provide guidance
with the rest of the financial aid application process—checking
status and accepting awards. These tasks can be completed online,
but first generation online students will need careful instruction
about the process.
Academic Advisors and/or Retention Specialists must be available
to work with this population. Like Admissions assistants, these
individuals are sometimes the first point of contact with the institution.
Their expertise in institutional practice and procedure is constantly
being tested. Since students depend on their advice to determine
courses they may or may not be able to take, these advisors must
be well-versed in the constant changes to program and prerequisite
requirements. They must also have up-to-date information about distance
programs and services.
Once the semester is underway, the focus for students shifts from
navigating the system to making it through the semester. Retention
Specialists, if they are available, play a key role in success for
this population. Faculty count on them to contact students who lag
behind class, and students count on them to be their advocates when
they are having difficulties. These mediators have proven their
worth as part of the distance education support team by advocating
for students with faculty and by providing referrals to tutoring,
counseling and other services colleges provide. Institutions with
limited human capital can work with online faculty to provide advising
and retention services for students. In some cases, having online
faculty serve as advisors for online students may be productive
because the occasion provides students additional time to get to
know faculty and become more confident in their ability to accomplish
their educational goals. For decades, mentoring has proven successful
in retention efforts of minority and at-risk students. First generation
online students share many attributes of those groups. E-mentoring
can occur via phone, email, or web conference according to the institution’s
Providing tutoring services to online learners is a challenge largely
addressed by combining personal and technological solutions when
students cannot visit a campus for assistance. Some institutions
contract with tutoring provider services; others use their CMS,
web-conferencing software, email or instant messaging to assist
distance education students with their coursework. Solutions may
only be as limited as the creativity of those charged with providing
the service. Colleges must, however, provide at least as much access
to tutoring services for their distance learners as they do for
their on campus students.
Access to counseling services is another challenge many institutions
are finding difficult to implement for online students. Some have
certified their staff to provide online counseling, but there is
strong resistance in the counseling community to that solution due
to the delicate nature of the service. Many institutions provide
counseling services to online students on a referral basis. Referrals
are provided by faculty, advisors, or the students themselves. Distance
Education departments should look to their counseling departments
for the solution most appropriate for their population.
Technical support is likely the most frequently used of all services
provided to online students; first generation online students are
not an exception. As with tutoring services, technical support must
be at least as available to online students as it is for on-campus
students. Popular alternatives for providing technical support are:
on-campus help for walk-ins, phone (some schools have toll-free
numbers), email, and chat. Most institutions strive to provide technical
support assistance for extended hours to accommodate their clients’
schedules. Some that serve very large distance learner populations
have begun outsourcing technical support to providers that offer
24/7 services. While college size and organizational structure may
vary, basics for technical support staff are constant:
• Staff must be well versed in basic trouble-shooting techniques;
• they must be customer service oriented; and
• they must be very patient, as often students will wait
until they are at peak frustration before they call or ask for
This group is critical to the success of a first generation online
students and any distance education program.
Librarians are key members of the instructional support team for
first generation online learners, as most do not have the experience
necessary to conduct research using online databases. At minimum,
librarians should be available via phone, chat, and email. Students
need online tutorials for accessing and using databases. Some schools
provide simple screen-by-screen directions on .pdf. Others may opt
to create flash-based tutorials for their students. Colleges getting
started with these services do not have to develop these tools themselves;
colleges or state libraries are often willing to share their materials.
Ideally, students are provided more than one option to accommodate
varying connectivity speeds.
Services of the Ombudsperson are likely among the least used by
first generation online students. Too often these students are not
aware of their rights or the steps they can take to protect them.
As with advising services, Ombudspersons can take steps to educate
these students and provide services via email, phone, after-hours
appointments, or web conferences. At minimum, institutions should
provide easily accessible links to information from the Ombudsperson
on their websites and websites of their distance education departments.
Bookstore representatives are often the most easily forgotten of
the essential advocates for first generation online learners. Many
college bookstores have online components that allow students to
buy their books online. Institutions serving first generation online
students need to assure this population is provided direction and
assistance when making their purchases online. Processes which are
commonplace to experienced or non-first generation online students
present new challenges for those without the personal resources
or experience. In this, too, first generation online students will
require special attention.
Career counselors and Job Placement officers are also part of the
student services collective important to first generation online
students. These students are less likely to have the personal resources
or mentors to make them aware of career options. Career counselors
and Job Placement officers can provide the tools to help first generation
online students make educated decisions about the careers they elect
to pursue. When appropriate, job placement officers can inform students
about internships and other job opportunities in their fields of
interest. These individuals can use email, chat, and webinars to
inform students about the services they provide.
Learning to Learn
No institution can assure the success of a student if the student
is not prepared to learn. First generation online students, like
their on-campus counterparts face the challenge of learning how
to learn. Put simply, many are not academically prepared for the
rigors of college courses, and most do not go to college already
knowing how to study (Engle, Bermeo, & O’Brien, 2006).
A review of the attributes of successful college students indicates
that self-regulation and self-efficacy are reliable predictors of
academic success (Williams & Hellman, 2004). Hellman and Harbeck
(1996) found that first generation college students lack in self-efficacy
skills. Consequently, Williams & Hellman strongly suggest the
need of an orientation to online learning, particularly for first
generation students. In their comparison of self-regulatory differences
between high achieving and low achieving students, Ley and Young
(2001) indicated the need of four guiding principles for imbedding
self-regulatory skill development in instruction:
1. Guide learners to prepare and structure an effective learning
2. Organize instruction and activities to facilitate cognitive
and metacognitive processes.
3. Use instructional goals and feedback to present student monitoring
4. Provide learners with continuous evaluation information and
occasions to self evaluate (pp. 94-95).
Managing the Process
Addressing Ley and Young’s (2001) principles requires a
• Prepare students to learn in the online environment (Principle
• Provide faculty the guidance and tools necessary to develop
courses (Principles 2-4).
of Good Practice or adaptations of them address Ley and Young’s
Principles 2-4. Most colleges and universities use the Principles
to inform their professional development for faculty to assure instructional
activities in online courses will result in achievement of established
learning outcomes. The Principles are also often used for development
and practice of evaluation processes for online courses. The
Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) Effective Practices website has numerous
resources to guide institutions to prepare faculty to teach online.
They also have many resources that faculty can access to help them
design better courses. A wealth of resources for distance education
teaching and instructional design can also be found at The
University of Wisconsin Distance Education Clearinghouse and
the Instructional Technology
Council (ITC) website.
We have yet to prescribe, however, a set of principles for preparing
students to learn in the online environment. Colleges and universities
throughout the country and the world have developed various options
to address the need.
Among the strategies some colleges are implementing to address
Ley and Young’s first recommendation is success tips such
as those in the Illinois
Online Network's Successful Student Profile or the Maryland
Online Successful Online Students Checklist. The UW
Distance Education Clearinghouse also lists many resources that
provide students’ guidance on becoming successful online learners.
More information on this topic can also be found on the ITC
Reports and Abstracts and the Sloan
Consortium (Sloan-C) Effective Practices website. The
Distance Learner’s Guide companion website also has information
that first generation online learners will find very helpful. More
recently, Decade Consulting, LLC has developed an assessment called
Readiness for Education at a Distance Indicator—a diagnostic
tool that assesses various personal attributes to determine student
readiness for online learning.
Other strategies many universities and some colleges use to help
students “prepare and structure and effective learning environment”
(Ley and Young, 2001) are online orientations and online student
centers. Many online orientations are primarily text-based, but
can be incorporated with other activities to further engage students.
Successful online orientations:
• Include guidelines or tutorials on study skills, effective
time management, and assertiveness. Poor skills here are proven
deterrents to success in online classes.
• Include student preparedness surveys. Students need to
be aware of personal attributes necessary for success in this
environment and of the technical knowledge necessary for their
• Include only the most pertinent information about institutional
processes; most students will not read through text if it takes
too long to get to the information they need.
• Include checklists from Admissions, Financial Aid, Advising,
and the Business Office. These should include lists of things
to do and applicable deadlines.
• Include contact information for people at the various
offices. These should be easily accessible and include days/times/locations
of availability, phone numbers, and email addresses.
Sloan Consortium has excellent resources for developing effective
online orientations. Some institutions create complete websites
for online student orientations while others prefer to host them
in their course management systems. Often the determination depends
on factors such as:
• the complexity of the project
o text or flash based
o passive or active engagement (reading only or interactive)
o student tracking required/not required
• the availability of staff to design and develop, and
• the timeline set for deployment of the final product.
Online has a very good web based orientation for online students,
and the University
System of Georgia Student Online Readiness Tool, SORT, is widely
recognized as an excellent instrument to help students determine
whether online learning is a good fit for them.
In today’s world of constant connectivity, it is easy to
forget that not all students will have the same degree of access
to technology. First generation online students may not be able
to afford broadband access, even if they happen to live in areas
where it is readily available. Advocates must keep in mind that
this population is not affluent or, in many cases, middle class.
Degree of connectivity plays a very important role in the potential
for first generation online students to succeed.
Undaunted by this challenge, some institutions use redundancy to
reach students, creating CD/DVD versions of their online orientations
and mailing them to students. This venture may prove a worthy investment
for colleges whose students have difficulty obtaining reliable internet
connections. Schools with very large enrollment can reduce the cost
by filtering mailing lists every semester to include only new students
until a new version of the orientation is developed.
Others have developed online student centers to provide more immediate
access to resources. These include communication with advisors,
tutors, and tech support via email, chat, or webinars.
None of these solutions is without its challenges, but all have
proven effective to some degree. Integral to the success of these
options is the continual commitment to collaboration by parties
in instruction, student services, and technology services.
Those who work with orientation and/or course development must
also assure that successful educational experiences for students
are not impeded due to conflicts with technology. Links to required
or necessary downloads must be available and easy to find.
The same is true of set-up directions or tutorials for using specialized
Faculty with media-rich courses should be encouraged to provide
these materials on CD or DVD for students with slow internet connections.
Those concerned about cost or the time necessary to duplicate materials
every semester may consider having them catalogued in the library
and requiring students to check out the materials.
Ultimately advocates of first generation online students must remember
that technology is a tool we use to facilitate instruction and instructional
support; it does not dictate how we facilitate instruction and instructional
We cannot and must not remove the human element from anything we
do in support of first generation online students. The challenges
they face are compounded by the nature of who they are and the mode
by which they pursue their educational goals. This group requires
detailed information on navigating college systems and on learning
how to learn. We must build strong collaboratives within our institutions
in support of this growing population and use student and bandwidth
friendly technology to reach and engage them in the higher education
culture. This population can succeed.
• The Distance
Illinois Online Network (ION) Successful Student Profile
Instructional Technology Council
Online Students Checklist
Principles of Good Practice for Electronically Offered Academic
Degree and Certificate Programs
Online—Strategies for Success for Online Learners
• The Sloan Consortium
University System of Georgia Student Online Readiness Tool
• The University of
Wisconsin Distance Education Clearinghouse
Buchanan, Elizabeth A. (2000). Going the Extra Mile: Serving Distance
Education Students. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration,
3 (1) Available: http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/search_results_id.php?id=72
State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center