First generation learners: a cultural deficit problem?

Martin Hall

UNESCO’s new report, “Technology in education: a tool on whose terms?”, takes a global view on three issues: the social and human dimensions of education and the role of the teacher; the risk that the use of technology in teaching can widen inequalities; and the tension between the principle that education should be a common good and the rise of commercial interests in education. The report has been launched in tandem with a campaign, #TechOnOurTerms, calling for greater regulation of the Edtech industry, particularly for the harvesting and use of personal data of learners.

There is a lot here. One detail that caught my attention was the under-recognition of the challenges faced by students who are ahead of their parents at their current level of formal education; high school students whose parents did not have the opportunity to complete their schooling; university students who are set to be the first in their families to graduate.  I’ve recently completed a project for the University of Cape Town, analysing long term rates of student progression and graduation. Because only 6% of South Africans have a university degree, a correspondingly high proportion of students are the first in their families to attend university. Consequently, first generation students form a large proportion of students at all South African universities, and a majority at some.

UNESCO finds that there has been insufficient attention to this category of students: 

one group that is not mentioned at all in the SDG 4 framework is first-generation learners, i.e. learners who are the first in their family to attend a particular level of schooling.

UNESCO’s review of the literature identifies some of the factors that shape educational outcomes for these students. They are more likely to doubt their skills and experience a fear of being exposed, a feeling exacerbated in courses which tend to be more competition-oriented, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. In some cases, research shows that children from less educated households are not as likely to receive a good grade, even when their performance is identical to learners from more privileged families. UNESCO concludes that completing a level of education that one’s parents never attended is a formidable challenge, whether for children of illiterate parents in low-income countries or first-in-their-family university students in high-income countries.”

Yes, but….

This argument starts from a deficit assumption, without considering the counter-intuitive. What if first generation students have a compelling vision of their future selves and a determination to succeed? What if it is an advantage not to be burdened by the assumptions of ones parents? The UNESCO report concludes that “first-generation students are more likely to have norms, such as a belief in collaboration, that are at odds with the more individualistic environment of higher education”. But what if this is an advantage, promising a new generation of graduates with a commitment to community, rather than just to themselves?

UNESCO’s general finding is referenced to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2020 and based on a sample of college students in the United States. This is what the authors conclude:

United States higher education prioritizes independence as the cultural ideal. As a result, first-generation students (neither parent has a four-year degree) often confront an initial cultural mismatch early on in college settings: they endorse relatively interdependent cultural norms that diverge from the independent cultural ideal. This initial cultural mismatch can lead first-generation students to perform less well academically compared with continuing-generation students (one or more parents have a four-year degree) early in college … providing access is not sufficient to reduce social class inequity; colleges need to create more inclusive environments to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds can reap similar rewards.  

But understanding “culture” in this way is to assume both that cultures are discrete sets of traits, and that one set of cultural traits is superior to the other, in this case validating independence and individualism as preferred graduate traits. Here, it’s useful to interpret the US-based study against a comparable analysis of first generation students at universities in South Africa, published by a team from the University of Johannesburg

This paper concluded that those who succeed are motivated by support from parents and peers and make use of resources in their communities:

both quantitative and qualitative findings indicated that these students take their parents’ and family’s support seriously …Involvement in their communities enabled the students to integrate their university culture into their home environment. .. In this study, it was discovered that peers would make great efforts to support each other, providing accommodation, encouragement, food and other forms of assistance.

These traits are closely aligned with mutual trust and respect, team work and the pursuit of collective goals – attributes that are widely valued in the workplace and which employers often see as underemphasised by universities as graduate attributes. So rather than making recommendations based on the assumed deficits of first generation students – “cultural mismatch” in the US study – could it be more productive to take a critical look at the curriculum and the personal attributes that it favours and fosters?

Educational challenges such as these are difficult to resolve, and attributing causality to learning outcomes with any reasonable level of confidence will depend on assembling wide-ranging and reliable data sets. Appropriately, UNESCO’s #TechOnOurTerms campaign centres on informed and ethical data collection and use. Focusing on first generation students, with their consent, and developing analytics based on the kinds of evidence assembled by the University of Johannesburg team, could have significant benefits for developing a curriculum that recognises the distinctive benefits that first-generation students can bring to the worlds of learning.

Khuluvhe, M. and E. M. Ganyaupfu (2022). Fact sheet: highest level of educational attainment in South Africa. Pretoria, Department of Higher Education and Training.

Motsabi, S., B. Diale and A. van Zyl (2020). “The Academic Persistence of First‑Year First‑Generation African Students (FYFGAS): A Framework for Higher Education in South Africa.” Journal of Student Affairs in Africa 8(2): 73-85.

Phillips, L. T., N. M. Stephens, S. S. M. Townsend and S. Goudeau (2020). “Access is not enough: cultural mismatch persists to limit first-generation students’ opportunities for achievement throughout college.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 119(5): 1112-1131.

UNESCO (2023). Technology in education: a tool on whose terms? Paris, UNESCO.

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