This qualitative study utilized a grounded theory approach to understand first-generation students' perceptions of influences on their successful journey to a four-year college. Twenty low-income, first-generation, African American and Latino students, were interviewed in order to understand who or what influenced them in developing aspirations to college, and at the various stages of the college search and selection process. These students were the first members of their immediate family to attend college.
Findings centered around five major influence areas: influences at home, influences at school, influences in the search and choice process, the continuing influence of cost of attendance, and the influence of courage as a necessary virtue for students who are the first members of their families to negotiate their path to college.
The home environment provided students with expectation, support, and stability. Parents and/or grandparents were the primary influence for students in the development of an aspiration to attend college. Stability in their elementary and secondary schooling experiences was a contributing influence in their success. Their school environments provided guidance, structure, and recognition. The availability of guidance counselors was essential to the success of the students in making their way to college. Also, teacher recognition and an in-school focus on college preparation activities were key influences for students as they progressed toward college.
Distance from home and cost of attendance were overarching considerations in a student's search for a particular college. The availability of a state grant led many students to consider only in-state colleges and universities. Many students considered going away to college as a natural part of the college experience. In the end, distance from home was a more important factor for Latina students and was generally more of an influence for female students than male students. Campus visits were limited to those colleges that provided visit opportunities, typically at no cost to the student.
Selection of a particular college was almost universally determined by where students received the best financial aid package. Families seldom spoke of how they would pay for college until a decision had to be made about a particular school. Students expected to take a lead role in paying for college. Students felt ongoing confusion about how they would pay for college and expressed a lack of understanding about how much they and their parents were borrowing to attend college.
Students ultimately were responsible for translating their parents' expectation into an aspiration to attend college. Their individual initiative and focus allowed them to progress through high school and prepare themselves for college. A sense of self-advocacy and personal motivation were important qualities that helped students get the necessary assistance they needed to achieve their destination: college.