Take the College and Career Readiness Quiz

Empowering First-Generation College Students at The College of Westchester

Fri, 03/08/2024
Empowering First-Generation College Students at The College of Westchester


Although I was not a first-generation college student, my father was, and he shared quite a lot about his experience and the challenges it presented him.  His family members didn’t understand what it took to be successful as a commuter student, with no public transportation, one family vehicle, limited financial resources and competing for time away from chores and work to get schoolwork completed. Thank you, dad, for paving the way for me!  My process was easier due to his trail blazing.   It also helped prepare me to better understand many of our students at The College of Westchester.

Navigating the journey of higher education can be particularly challenging for first-generation college students, and it certainly was for my dad.  First gen students often embark on this path without the roadmap that is typically available to peers with college-educated parents. These students face unique challenges, from academic preparedness to financial constraints and cultural integration. However, small colleges, like The College of Westchester (CW), with intimate class sizes offer a nurturing environment that can significantly enhance student success rates. With over 75% of students at CW being the first in their families to attend college, understanding and addressing their needs is not just important; it's essential to our mission, and we take it very seriously.

The Unique Challenges of First-Generation College Students

Just like my dad did, first-generation college students often confront a complex web of challenges. According to Ishitani (2006), these students are significantly more likely to drop out than their peers whose parents have a college education. The lack of familial experience in navigating college life, from the application process to the nuances of college culture, can leave these students feeling alienated and overwhelmed. Financial burdens often loom larger for first-generation students, who may have less access to family resources and guidance on financial aid and scholarships (Engle & Tinto, 2008). I know when my dad attended college, his siblings were not always happy that he was given this opportunity as it took away from the family’s overall resources.   At CW we help students navigate every step in their journey.  We also offer significant funding through scholarships and grants.  This is integral to who we are and how we meet our students where they are.

The Small College Advantage

CW is uniquely positioned to support first-generation college students through challenges. Here's how:

Personalized Attention and Support: One on one attention through admissions, the financial aid process and course registration is step one.  Upon enrollment the small class sizes (16:1 student to faculty ratio) enable personalized attention from faculty and staff, fostering a supportive and inclusive academic environment. This personalized approach helps demystify the complexities of college navigation, from academic advising to career services, making the college experience more accessible and manageable for our first-generation students.

Building a Community of Peers: At CW first-generation students are definitely among peers with similar backgrounds and experiences.  According to published data from, and compared to larger state and community colleges, CW has twice the number of first-generation students leading to a cohesive community of peers. This sense of community is crucial for building confidence and a sense of belonging. Studies have shown that peer support networks are critical in retaining first-generation students, as they provide emotional support, motivation, and the sharing of valuable information and resources (Strayhorn, 2012).  Each student needs to choose the college setting that is best for them, and there’s a lot of data to back up why a college like CW is an excellent choice for a first-generation college student, whether entering college right out of high school, or coming back to college after a failed first attempt, or no attempt in their past. 

Enhanced Opportunities for Engagement:  At CW, we offer many accessible opportunities for students to engage in extracurricular activities, leadership roles, and internships. These opportunities are not just extracurricular; they are integral to student success, providing real-world experiences, building professional networks, and enhancing resumes. Engagement in campus life has been linked to higher retention rates among first-generation students, as it fosters a sense of belonging and investment in the college experience (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2008). Using my own daughter’s college experience as an example, at her larger state college, most clubs are social, anything based on academics is reserved only for the honors enrollees, thus limiting accessibility.  Whereas at CW, any student has access, for example, to become a member of Enactus, an entrepreneurial based student organization focused on business achievement.  I mean no disrespect to my daughter’s college, or any college.  The smaller environment at CW makes it easy for us to create the accessibility that larger colleges may find more of a challenge.

Empirical Support for the Small College Approach

Research supports the efficacy of small college environments, like that at CW, in supporting first-generation college students:

Academic Success: A study by Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, and Terenzini (2004) found that first-generation college students benefit significantly from small class sizes, with improvements in critical thinking and overall academic performance. This academic boost is attributed to the increased interaction with faculty and personalized feedback that small class sizes facilitate.  At CW our faculty are very hands-on, get to know students by name, and take the time to help outside the classroom when needed.  This contributes much to the student’s level of comfort acclimating to a college environment.

Retention Rates: According to Tinto (2012), smaller educational settings are more effective in retaining first-generation college students, largely due to the development of strong mentor-mentee relationships and a cohesive sense of community. These factors are critical in making students feel valued and understood, directly impacting their decision to persist through challenges. That is in full force at CW where students have assigned advisors as well as success coaches.  They also have access to the full career services team from their first day on campus. 

Graduation Rates: A report by the Pell Institute (2016) indicates that first-generation students attending small colleges have higher graduation rates compared to those in larger institutions. This success is linked to the comprehensive support systems and community engagement opportunities that small colleges offer. 


The path to graduation for first-generation college students is complex and has unique challenges. However, the supportive, community-oriented environment of CW can significantly mitigate these obstacles. By offering personalized attention, fostering a sense of belonging, and providing ample opportunities for engagement, CW is not just an educational institution; CW is a catalyst for change, empowering first-generation students to achieve their dreams against the odds.  Knowing what my dad and his family sacrificed so he could attend college, I have massive respect for each and every first-generation student who successfully embarks upon and completes their college studies at CW.  Kudos to you all!  So, for those out there reading along, I encourage you to consider a College of Westchester program.  You can find out more by calling our admissions office at (914)831-0200, or apply for free today at:  https://success.cw.edu/forms/apply/career/Acct.aspx


Engle, J., & Tinto, V. (2008). Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students. The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Ishitani, T. T. (2006). Studying Attrition and Degree Completion Behavior among First-Generation College Students in the United States. The Journal of Higher Education, 77(5), 861-885.

Kuh, G. D., Cruce, T. M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J., & Gonyea, R. M. (2008). Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(5), 540-563.

Pascarella, E. T., Pierson, C.

Posted by: 
President Karen J. Smith