Biz Programs With The Most (And Fewest) First-Generation College Students

Commencement at Washington University in St. Louis. Photo by Mark Katzman

Increasingly in the United States, a four-year college degree serves as a catalyst for upward socioeconomic mobility. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, college-educated millennials (ages 25 to 32) made an average of $45,500. Those with only high school diplomas, meanwhile, earned just $28,000. But this is nothing new. The numbers have been consistently diverging since 1965, when high school grads earned $31,384 and college grads made $38,883.

Even beyond salary averages, the picture is bleak for those without a college education. The Pew study found that 21.8% of high school graduates were living in poverty, a rate that has climbed from just 7% in 1979; only 5.8% of college graduates are in the same straits. College grads also are more satisfied with their jobs and feel they are on more of a career-track than high school graduates.

The good news is, more 25- to 32-year-olds have college degrees than any other generation. Similarly, first-generation college students are enrolling in four-year colleges and universities at higher rates than ever before.

To get a sense of first-generation enrollment numbers at the nation’s best undergraduate business programs, we asked schools included in the Poets&QuantsBest Business Programs to report the percentages of first-generation college students they enrolled in the class entering their schools last fall. With a rate of 30%, no other school on the list enrolled more first-generation students than the Rutgers Business School in New Brunswick. Rounding out the top five were the University of Tennessee (25%), University of Connecticut (21.95%), University of Missouri (20.2%), and Arizona State University (19%).


Of the 50 schools included in the rankings, only 25 reported first-generation data, suggesting many schools are not yet tracking this segment of their population. And while private universities have largely dominated previous lists of populations of under-represented minorities and international students, large public universities are enrolling more first-generation students. Of the top 10 schools with high rates of first-generation students, seven are major land-grant universities.

Another difference between schools enrolling high numbers of first-generation students and those with high percentages of international students and U.S. minorities is placement in the rankings. Higher- and lower-ranked schools alike enrolled high numbers of international students and U.S. minorities, but that wasn’t the case with schools enrolling large percentages of first-generation students. The highest top-10 school was Notre Dame, with the 17th-most first-generation students. Of the 16 schools to enroll more first-generation students than Notre Dame, five were in the bottom 10 spots in the rankings.

Of course, enrolling first-generation college students is one thing; fostering an atmosphere where they can thrive is another. First-generation students still have much higher dropout rates than college students with parents who have earned college degrees. Even having one parent or an older sibling with a college degree can substantially increase the likelihood of success. Indeed, the University of Tennessee had among the lowest four- and six-year graduation rates of all schools that reported such data to Poets&Quants. And Arizona State University — another school enrolling a high number of first-generation students — had one of the lowest employment rates for its most recent graduating class. On the other hand, the University of Missouri had one of the highest employment rates — and a higher number of first-generation students enrolling last fall.

One of the most commonly cited needs for first-generation students is a mentor who has been through it before. In a recent interview on PBS, Cuban-American author and first-generation college student Jennine Capo Crucet explained the importance of a mentor with common ground.

“Technically, I had a mentor my first year in college, but when I finally met him, he didn’t seem to understand how confused I was, in part because he came from a long line of college-going folks. He didn’t know how much I didn’t know either,” Crucet said. “Formal mentors like the one my college assigned me need to be first-generation college students themselves or have been trained by people intimately familiar with the challenges students like me faced.”

See below for a list of the schools with the highest percentages of first-generation college students.


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