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Understanding College Persistence

Roughly one third of students whose parents didn't attend college drop out, compared with 26 percent of students whose parents attended some college and 14 percent of those whose parents hold bachelor's degrees.  A considerable body of research indicates that students whose parents have not attended college often face significant challenges in accessing postsecondary education, succeeding academically once they enroll, and completing a degree. 

The purpose of this resource is to provide mentors with information and resources to best understand the common barriers iMentor students face and the key milestones they need to achieve to persist in college, particularly in the first two years. This article is broken down into the following categories:

  1. Why First Generation Students Do Not Persist in College
  2. Staying on Track to Persist
  3. How Mentors Can Support Students

Why First-Generation Students Do Not Persist

Students who are first in their families to attend college contend with unique challenges. Without the benefit of parents’ college-going experience, they have fewer tools to navigate college systems and day-to-day campus life. Research has shown that low-income and first-generation students are less likely
to be engaged in the academic and social experiences that foster success in college, such as studying in groups, interacting with faculty and other students, participating in extracurricular activities, and using support services. Lower levels of academic and social integration among first generation students is often linked to finances and access to financial aid. Below are the brief descriptions of the common barriers that prevent first-generation, low-income students from persisting in college. 

  1. Academics     
    • Many first generation students report being inadequately prepared for college level work, including writing ability, computer literacy, time management, and study skills. 
    • First-generation and low-income students, a majority of which are students of color, are more likely to be enrolled in remedial education courses.
  2. Financial Factors     
    • Many first-generation college students cite the cost of college and associated expenses as their biggest barrier to starting or persisting in college.  Although working in college has become more common,  of low-income students working 15 or more hours a week, 59 percent struggle to maintain a C average or above. 
    • Financial awards often come with a GPA minimum to continue receiving aid, loans, or grants, creating another layer of stress. academics.
    • Financial challenges often result in first-generation students struggling to cover the cost of technology, books, fees, housing, utilities  and food. 
  3. Social and Cultural Factors     
    • Finding community, possessing a sense of belonging and accessing support on campus are critical success factors for all college students. For students of color,  issues of racism  (institutional, implicit, and blatant acts of racism), can lead to feelings of loneliness, disengagement, and a belief in imposter syndrome- the notion that they don't belong in predominately white institutions of higher learning. Learn more about stereotype threat and impact on first generation students of color.
    • First generation college students are often unaware of the hidden curriculum, or the "norms, values, and expectations” that govern interactions among students, faculty, staff and administrators on a college campus. 
    • Students also report being subjected to instances of microaggressions or “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group" from their white professors and peers. 
  4. Physical, emotional and mental health issues     
    • Adjusting to college life is stressful, particularly for those that do not have the social or cultural capital to help with the transition to a new environment with new systems and rules. First-generation students at large public research universities have reported higher levels of depression/stress on average compared with their non-first generation peers. 
    • These issues may be related to microaggressions experienced on college campuses, which can derail students. 
    • Studies regarding mental health in college demonstrate that first-generation students are "not as willing to seek counseling because of attitudes and self-stigma."

See below for more information about persistence barriers for first-generation students from low-income backgrounds

The College Dropout Crisis (NY Times feature)

The Privileged Poor (Interview with author Anthony Abraham Jack)

Research about First Generation College Students (iMentor Learning Center)

Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students (American Council on Education)

Center for First Generation Student Success (National Assoc. of Student Personnel Administrators)

Staying on Track to Persist in College

Having learned about some of the common barriers to persistence, let's focus now on the common milestones students should achieve in order to stay on track to persist and complete college. These milestones can be broken down into critical categories: academic, financial and social/emotional development.


  1. Grade Point Average (GPA)
    • Students with GPA of C-average or lower are less likely to persist in college. The likelihood of college completion diminishes as GPA declines. 
    • Students should meet often with their academic advisor, attend office hours and access student support services on campus. 
  2. Credits Earned in Year One: 
    • Students who earn less than 20 credits by the end of the first year of enrollment are 30% less likely to graduate. Taking 12+ credits is considered full-time for financial aid. 
    • Students should take 15 credits per semester to stay on track to graduate in 4 years.
  3. Full v. Part- Time Status: 
    • Students at part time status ever in college may be 30% less likely of completing a college degree when compared to students who maintain a full-time status. 
    • Whenever possible, mentees should enter college immediately after high school graduation and maintain full-time status. 
  4. Continuous Enrollment: 
    • Students who stop out (a.k.a. leave college) for more than one semester (consecutively or not) are less likely to complete a college degree. Students who remain continuously enrolled in college, even with a part time status are 43 percent more likely to complete a college degree.
    • Students should be encouraged to maintain continuous enrollment in college to increase their likelihood of completing a degree in four to six years after high school graduation.
  5. Withdrawal from or Repeating Courses
    • Students who withdraw from (even without penalty) or repeat multiple courses may be up to 50% more likely to drop out. 
    • Add/drop/withdrawal deadlines are typically posted online on the institution’s academic calendar.
    • Students should be aware that dropping/withdrawing courses could  move them to part-time status, which will impact their eligibility for financial aid.


  1. Financial Aid
    • Students must apply every year for which they wish to receive aid.
    • FAFSA renewal application opens October 1st.
    • Students should explore payment plans and  monitor GPA, number of credit hours acquired and other requirements to maintain eligibility for financial aid.
    • Students should access financial aid support on campus.
  2. Understanding and Practicing Financial Literacy
    • Students can often underestimate or become overwhelmed by the non-tuition costs of attending college, putting them at risk of stopping or dropping out. 
    • Students need support with  understand finances and budgeting for expenses


  1. Sense of Belonging
    • Students who do not participate in peer-group events such as extracurricular activities, school associations, or social activities with other students in college are less likely to persist.
    • Students that are able to find and build community are more likely to experience social and academic integration in their campus community, increasing their sense of belonging and likelihood of persisting. 
    • Students should seek out community on campus and in the local community so that they feel less isolated and more engaged with peers and supports available on campus.
  2. Self-Care
    • Emotional health and self-care are key components to thriving in college. Students that practice self-care increase their chances of persisting in college. 
    • Students should access resources on campus and in the community to be aware of and take care of their emotional health.
  3. Non-Cognitive skill development
    • Students who have high expectations and strong performance goals are more likely to persist into their sophomore year of college.
    • Choice of major and the degree to which it aligns with the goals of a student is critical. 
    • Students should develop knowledge and skills in the areas of growth mindset, setting SMART Goals, and practicing  time management.

How Mentors Can Support Students

  1. Continue to encourage and be a champion for your mentee.
  2.  Be an issue identifier: ask probing questions early and often (i.e. 'How are you feeling about your classes?  Are you going to office hours? Are you taking advantage of student support services on campus?') then notify your Program Manager if/when challenges occur
  3. Remind your mentee to attend office hours and  meet with their on-campus academic advisor 
  4. Encourage your mentee to register for 15 credits per semester to stay on track to graduate in four-years.
  5. Take time to navigate the website for your mentee's college or university. Become familiar with the academic policies and student services available to your mentee. 
  6. Remind your mentee to practice self care and to access student support services on campus.
  7. Remind your mentee to access advising support from their program manager.
  8. Access the Learning Center resources on social, emotional and cultural resources and understanding finances.
  9. Remind your mentee to take advantage of iMentor's Emergency Fund to cover unexpected costs that might prevent students from persisting in college.