Date of Award

Fall 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Leadership

Committee Director

Dana Burnett

Committee Member

Mitchell Williams

Committee Member

Alan Schwitzer


First-generation students comprise 36% of U.S. community college enrollments but struggle to remain in school to earn a college credential. First-generation students are less likely to enroll in college and have a higher probability for attrition than continuing-generation students. The purpose of this qualitative study was to understand how first-generation students attending a rural community college located in the Southeastern United States perceived that their experiences impacted their academic and nonacademic success. This study replicated and extended the Stansberry and Burnett (2014) study that explored the experiences of first-generation students attending a large, diverse research university.

This phenomenological study utilized focus groups to explore the experiences of 21 first-generation rural community college students. Focus group interviews were guided by four research questions designed to explore what experiences students perceived to have impacted their academic and nonacademic success. This study further explored what challenges first-generation students perceived they faced compared to non-first-generation students, and what personal factors impacted their college success. Developing an understanding of how first-generation students perceive their lived experiences impact their academic and nonacademic success can help college leaders design support services that will aid efforts to increase retention.

The findings from this study confirmed past research revealing that a lack of social capital, academic preparation, financial resources, and family support challenged this population of students in their transition to college. However study results contradict past research which offers part-time enrollment as increasing the risk of first-generation student attrition. Additionally, although this current study’s findings support the findings of the Stansberry and Burnett (2014) study, academic integration in terms of institutional fit and experiences related to access to resources and support services differed between the two samples of first-generation students.