National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Spring 2018


Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 19:1 (Spring/Summer 2018), pp25-31.


© Copyright 2018 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


Many honors administrators can cite the numbers and percentages of students of color and statistics on the male to female ratio. Public institutions might cite in-state to out-of-state comparisons. For most, however, socioeconomic status is low on their list, if there at all, even though it is an important measure of diversity. First-generation college students, neither of whose parents has a baccalaureate degree, make up 58% of college enrollments (Redford & Hoyer). Students with a Pell Grant, which qualifies them as having a low-income background, compose 33% of the American higher education population (Baum et al.). Approximately 24% of college students are both first-generation and low-income (Engle & Tinto). In honors, firstgeneration college students make up 28.6% of honors college and program enrollments (National Collegiate Honors Council’s Admissions, Retention, and Completion Survey).

Research from the third (2012) follow-up to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Longitudinal Study of 2002 has provided more specific details about first-generation college students. The NCES found that 24% of college students come from families where neither parent has any college experience while an additional 34% are from families where parents may have some college experience but no bachelor’s degree. The final 42% of students have at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree (Redford & Hoyer). Most research has reached the consensus that a first-generation college student (FGCS) is a student for whom neither parent has a bachelor’s degree (Davis). Using this definition, 58% of college students can be considered first-generation.

No one definition of a low-income college student is sufficient given the variation depending on the location. A student may be considered low-income if attending a private institution in a location with a high cost of living but reasonably well-off at a public institution in a low cost-of-living area. Most institutions use Pell Grant eligibility as a proxy for income levels, but this is an imperfect metric. Not all students file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for a variety of reasons, such as having uncertain immigrant status or having a family member who is an undocumented immigrant. Other students are unable to file the FAFSA because their parents refuse to share financial or tax information with them out of embarrassment or fear of being audited. The NCES estimates that approximately 20% of students do not file the FAFSA, but it is impossible to tell who may have qualified for a Pell Grant.