Virtual On line
June 22, 2020
June 22, 2020
June 26, 2021
Liberal Education/Engineering & Society
First-generation (FG) and/or low-income (LI) engineering student populations are of particular interest in engineering education. However, these populations are not defined in a consistent manner across the literature or amongst stakeholders. The intersectional identities of these groups have also not been fully explored in most quantitative-based engineering education research. This research paper aims to answer the following three research questions: (RQ1) How do students’ demographic characteristics and college experiences differ depending on levels of parent educational attainment (which forms the basis of first-generation definitions) and family income? (RQ2) How do ‘first-generation’ and ‘low-income’ definitions impact results comparing to their continuing-generation and higher-income peers? (RQ3) How does considering first-generation and low-income identities through an intersectional lens deepen insight into the experiences of first-generation and low-income groups?
Data were drawn from a nationally representative survey of engineering juniors and seniors (n = 6197 from 27 U.S. institutions). Statistical analyses were conducted to evaluate respondent differences in demographics (underrepresented racial/ethnic minority (URM), women, URM women), college experiences (internships/co-ops, having a job, conducting research, and study abroad), and engineering task self-efficacy (ETSE), based on various definitions of ‘first generation’ and ‘low income’ depending on levels of parental educational attainment and self-reported family income.
Our results indicate that categorizing a first-generation student as someone whose parents have less than an associate’s degree versus less than a bachelor’s degree may lead to different understandings of their experiences (RQ1). For example, the proportion of URM students is higher among those whose parents have less than an associate’s degree than among their “associate’s degree or more” peers (26% vs 11.9%). However, differences in college experiences are most pronounced among students whose parents have less than a bachelor’s degree compared with their “bachelor’s degree or more” peers: having a job to help pay for college (55.4% vs 47.3%), research with faculty (22.7% vs 35.0%), and study abroad (9.0% vs 17.3%). With respect to differences by income levels, respondents are statistically different across income groups, with fewer URM students as family income level increases. As family income level increases, there are more women in aggregate, but fewer URM women. College experiences are different for the middle income or higher group (internship 48.4% low and lower-middle income vs 59.0% middle income or higher; study abroad 11.2% vs 16.4%; job 58.6% vs 46.8%).
Despite these differences in demographic characteristics and college experiences depending on parental educational attainment and family income, our dataset indicates that the definition does not change the statistical significance when comparing between first-generation students and students who were continuing-generation by any definition (RQ2).
First-generation and low-income statuses are often used as proxies for one another, and in this dataset, are highly correlated. However, there are unique patterns at the intersection of these two identities. For the purpose of our RQ3 analysis, we define ‘first-generation’ as students whose parents earned less than a bachelor’s degree and ‘low-income’ as low or lower-middle income. In this sample, 68 percent of students were neither FG nor LI while 11 percent were both (FG&LI). On no measure of demographics or college experience is the FG&LI group statistically similar to the advantaged group. Low-income students had the highest participation in working to pay for college, regardless of parental education, while first-generation students had the lower internship participation than low-income students. Furthermore, being FG&LI is associated with lower ETSE compared with all other groups.
These results suggest that care is required when applying the labels “first-generation” and/or “low-income” when considering these groups in developing institutional support programs, in engineering education research, and in educational policy. Moreover, by considering first-generation and low-income students with an intersectional lens, we gain deeper insight into engineering student populations that may reveal potential opportunities and barriers to educational resources and experiences that are an important part of preparation for an engineering career.
Atwood, S. A., & Gilmartin, S. K., & Harris, A., & Sheppard, S. (2020, June), Defining First-generation and Low-income Students in Engineering: An Exploration Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34373
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