first-in-family university students

What happens now to students who are first-in-family to go to university?

Students who are the first in their family to attend university remain severely under-represented, despite policy efforts to widen participation in Australian higher education.  Many first-in-family students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and, as a result, there has been extensive focus on how social class influences their experiences at university. However, there has been significantly less attention to the role that gender plays.

We conducted a study with 48 first-in-family students over three years – the First-in-Family Project – documenting their transition from secondary school into university.  They came from ethnically diverse backgrounds and were recruited from across state, independent and faith-based secondary schools. All participants presented as cis-gender. The research focused on their experiences in higher education and how their aspirations changed in relation to such experiences. 

In our research, published in Gendering the First-in-Family Experience: Transitions, Liminality and Performativity (Routledge, 2022), we found that during the transition to university, many of the participants questioned the gender norms of their school and family environments.  It is at university where many first-in-family students are first exposed to a diversity of gender identities which often contrast the gender identities present in their secondary schools. Some students spoke of the pressure they felt during secondary school to be a particular type of girl or boy, while they felt there were fewer constraints at university.  

Of the 48 participants, 9 withdrew from university, 7 chose not to attend, and 2 deferred. We found that very few of our participants enrolled in elite sandstone institutions. Instead, most participants chose to attend universities close to home. We were interested in the role gender played in the first-in-family experience, and focused on three areas: gender and the family; gender and influential teachers; gender and mental health.

Gender and the family

Our research found that families of first-in-family students are supportive of their children’s education. Still, they do not necessarily have sufficient knowledge of higher education to be able to give advice about navigating the system.  Instead, families focused on emotionally supporting students; extended family members were often influential and an important resource when first-in-family students struggled.

We also found that family life and expectations were significantly gendered.  Mothers were more often the primary resource in terms of emotional support for the participants. In contrast, fathers were less involved. This was especially true for the girls in the study, where part of what formed their aspirations for university was their desire to experience the opportunities and futures their mothers were denied. The boys in the study wanted to be seen as independent in their decision-making, while this was less apparent for the girls. Ultimately, all students in the study saw their lives as filled with more opportunities than their parents. 

Gender and influential teachers

Close relationships with secondary school teachers informed the aspirations of first-in-family students – but these relationships were gendered as well.  While all participants could point to specific teachers from their secondary school who had been pivotal in supporting them to reach their goals of attending university, there were notable differences based on gender.  For example, the boys tended to inhabit an identity centred around effortless achievement – of having a chilled or relaxed disposition – and sought out teachers who could push them.  In contrast, most girls portrayed themselves as ‘work-focused’ and diligent in their studies and forged relationships with teachers they perceived to be nurturing. 

Gender and mental health

Within research on first-in-family students, there has recently been increased attention to how struggles with mental health may impact their experiences. Research in Australian higher education has found these students rated financial concerns, time management, lack of sleep, and the demands around assessment as having a significant impact on their mental health. Within our study, over 40 per cent of young women presented a mental health issue while just under four percent of young men did. While the girls were open about their mental health concerns from the onset, over the course of the research, the young men began to either experience poor mental health for the first time or became more open with us about their mental health. 

Policy Implications: Improving the first-in-family experience

Drawing on our research, we seek to make recommendations at the policy level and for educators working in both secondary and higher education. 

Highlighting the role of gender, the boys seemed to suffer more from a lack of time management skills, which did not seem as much of a concern for the girls. Instead, the girls were more apprehensive about their ability to succeed when there was less access to personalised one-on-one support at university than they had experienced in high school.  

Furthermore, in terms of mental health, the girls in the First-in-Family Project were more open about their struggles with mental health. This highlights the gendering of mental health and how support services may need to be more attuned to gender differences for students from non-traditional backgrounds.

For those working in higher education, it is also important to note that many participants struggled to integrate socially with other university students who were mainly from middle-class backgrounds.  They found the experience isolating, and they doubted themselves.  There were few examples of students taking pride in their first-in-family status.  This was compounded by how many participants experienced confusion over pragmatics (e.g. timetables, scheduling, commuting) and how to navigate and conduct themselves at university. To conclude, while investments in widening participation are to be commended, the struggles of first-in-family students highlight how more can be done to familiarise students from disadvantaged backgrounds with what university entails.

Garth Stahl is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, educational reform and gendered subjectivities.

Sarah McDonald is a Lecturer based at the Centre for Research in Education & Social Inclusion in UniSA Education Futures, University of South Australia. Her research interests are in gendered subjectivities, girlhood, social mobility, social barriers, and inequalities in education.

There are direct actions we can take now to make university access fair

While in recent decades there has been a focus on improving equitable access to higher education, inequalities cannot be overcome by simply exhorting more young people to go to university. Policies must also address the disparities between students that affect their capacity to ‘choose’ higher education

Australia has seen substantial growth in university enrolments since the 1960s, as the sector has moved from ‘elite’ education to one that has been described as ‘university for the masses’. More recently, policies designed to ‘widen participation’ have aimed to increase representation of groups who have not traditionally enrolled in higher education in large numbers, particularly Indigenous Australians, those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and Australians living in regional and remote areas.

However, widening participation has not led to a fair or socially just university system. Not only do students from socially disadvantaged groups remain less likely to go to university than their more advantaged peers but, if they do go to university, they are more likely to enrol in less prestigious institutions and degrees.

Equitable access is often seen as overcoming ‘crude’ barriers such as money, distance, and achievement. But it is much more complicated than that. 

In recent years, market-based reforms to the higher education sector have cast prospective university students as ‘customers’ who are empowered to shop around for the ‘right’ institution and the ‘right’ course. And while outreach initiatives have been implemented by universities to reach under-represented groups, it is the less prestigious universities that are frequently promoted to these students and, if students do not take them up, they are judged as being ‘not aspirational enough’ and in need of fixing.

But what leads young people to make different kinds of higher education ‘choices’?

Our research draws on data collected as part of a four-year project (2012-2015) involving students in Years 3 to 12 (aged 8 to 18) enrolled in 64 NSW government schools, with a focus on the formation of their post-school educational and occupational aspirations. 

From that data, we made a comparative study of two schools, a metropolitan high school ‘Harbour View’ (pseudonym) where students are more ‘traditional’ entrants to higher education, and a regional central school ‘Mountainside’ (pseudonym), where students are often seen to be the targets of widening participation initiatives.

In Harbour View, the median income is twice the state average and half of adults hold a university degree. In Mountainside, the median income is half the state average and one in 15 adults hold a university degree.

Our research showed that students of Harbour View, a wealthy suburb in the state’s capital, see no choice but to go to university; it is a long-term expectation that they take for granted and not to go to university is inconceivable. They have at least one parent and many relatives and friends who have been to university, and these people provide students with important first-hand information and stories. The decision to go to university is well-established, so much so that students’ talk of their aspirations centres on where to go, rather than if they should go to university, which often includes prestigious institutions where family members have gone, and even overseas universities. These students also have access to international travel opportunities and take part in high-status cultural activities which they can ‘trade in’ when competing for entry into high-status institutions.

For the students of Mountainside, in a regional area with a history of mining and logging, their talk about university is based around language of hesitation and doubt; they will ‘wait and see’ what the future brings and believe that university is ‘not for everyone’. Financial concerns are prevalent when they speak about higher education; for instance, one student said they would go only if they got a scholarship. Some said the ‘real world’ is one of work, not study, and they had already excluded the very idea of higher education from a young age. Most do not have a parent or relative with a degree and have not visited a university campus; their information about higher education therefore comes from school. While these students rarely mentioned a specific institution to attend, Mountainside is an hour’s drive from a metropolitan university, and that university was perceived as the best choice for those who might go because of proximity to family, cost, and perceived ‘fit’.

Through our analysis, we argue that the idea of equitable choice in accessing higher education is an illusion. While the widening participation agenda aims to open up higher education to the masses, it is unlikely the young people in our two case studies will end up at the same university, or even the same kind of institution. 

Despite its social justice motives, widening participation has an unintended consequence – it is entwined with social sorting. Those who are already privileged tend to amass the benefits that come with attending prestigious universities. For their less advantaged peers, simply ‘having a degree’ is often not enough to compete in the competitive graduate marketplace.

Our research shows that the capacity to ‘choose’ university is vastly different for young Australians. If equity in the contemporary higher education sector is to be addressed in any depth, fair access inside the system – not just to the system – must be part of the policy agenda. 

It is clear that widening participation initiatives must be implemented early, long before senior secondary school, and must expose students to a range of institutions and degrees. 

And individual institutions must rethink their approach; allocating places for students from under-represented groups in prestigious degrees, offering targeted early entry schemes which do not rely solely on academic measures, and providing financial support through scholarships and fellowships for disadvantaged students.

Sally Patfield is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, with over 15 years’ experience working in various educational contexts, including as a primary teacher in NSW public schools and across professional and academic roles in higher education. Sally’s doctoral research investigated school students who would be the first in their families to enter higher education. Her thesis was awarded the prestigious Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education by the Australian Association for Research in Education (2019). Sally’s research focuses on the sociology of higher education, social inequalities, widening participation, and educational transitions.

Don’t lock the doors on students who are first in their family to go to university. Aspirations matter

The funding freeze imposed on Australian universities by the Federal Government brings grave concerns that the chances of securing a place at university will be dramatically reduced. Vice-Chancellors warn they will need to cut the number of places they offer and say the budgets of regional universities will be hardest hit.

Universities Australia, the voice of Australian universities, claims the ‘doors of opportunity’ will be slammed shut on many prospective students, especially those from backgrounds of least advantage.

A specific group of those students is the focus of my doctoral thesis. I looked at the educational aspirations of students who would be first in their family to go to university.

The government recognises six different groups to target for equity provisions in higher education but first-in-family status is not specifically mentioned as a target. My research leads me to believe that dealing with issues of equity in higher education is much more complex than when these groups were identified and set into policy, and that first-in-family status should now also be recognised in both policy and practice.

As part of my study, I looked at how the aspirations of first-in-family students can be affected as early as in Year 3 in primary school, and how important parents and carers can be in inspiring someone who is the first in their family to go to university. Contrary to some perceptions, parents and carers were often cited as a major source of inspiration by first-in-family students.

Equity in higher education

While equity has long been of importance in the higher education sector, it is timely to consider new directions for increasing equitable access. Six equity target groups have been inscribed in higher education policy for close to 30 years: people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, people from regional and remote areas, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds, women in non-traditional areas of study, and Indigenous Australians.

However over this period, the higher education landscape has transformed dramatically. These groups remain core to conceptualisations of equity in higher education, fundamentally shaping how educational inequalities are, and should be, addressed. But I believe they no longer enough to fully shape our higher education policies.

So where does ‘first in family’ fit in?

First-in-family students: A new direction for equity

Australian universities have increasingly recognised students who are ‘first’ within their families to pursue university (reflecting the immense attention directed towards first-generation entrants to higher education in the United States). In general, ‘first-in-family’ students are understood to be individuals who do not have a parent/carer with at least a bachelor-level degree.

The importance of looking at this population of young people is highlighted in recent data from the OECD that shows having a university-educated parent almost doubles the chances of an individual being enrolled in university.

When first-in-family students do enter university, they can face considerable challenges, such as feeling like ‘fish out of water’ or ‘strangers without codebooks’ due to the unfamiliarity of the new environment. These analogies help to explain why such students have significantly higher rates of attrition in comparison to their peers with at least one university-educated parent.

My research: The aspirations of prospective first-in-family students

As part of my doctoral thesis, I looked at the educational aspirations of school students who would be first in their family to go to university. Working on a four-year longitudinal project (2012–2015) called the Aspirations Longitudinal Study, led by Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, I was able to draw on a substantial body of data from 64 government schools in NSW, comprising annual online surveys completed by 6,492 students (each of whom I categorised as prospective first-in-family or non first-in-family depending on their highest level of parental education), together with focus groups conducted in a subsample of 30 schools.

What I found highlights the need to recognise first-in-family students within Australian higher education policy and practice, perhaps even more so when framed by the recent uncertainties in university funding.

A profile of prospective first-in-family students

First, I looked at creating a profile of prospective first-in-family students.

I found that many of these students had overlapping socio-demographic characteristics with one, or a number of, the existing equity target groups, highlighting overlooked complexities in how equity is currently conceived within government policy.

In comparison to their peers with at least one university-educated parent, prospective first-in-family students were significantly more likely to identify as Indigenous and come from a lower socioeconomic status background. However, importantly, first-in-family status did not neatly overlap the existing target groups, as they were also more likely to come from English-speaking backgrounds – the opposite of how language background is currently captured within policy.

In addition, there were prospective first-in-family students who did not fall under any of the existing equity categorisations. For example, there were many students who lived in metropolitan areas and who identified as non-Indigenous, potentially signalling that these young people may be unintentionally disregarded in school outreach initiatives run by universities that are usually tailored towards the existing equity target groups.

Educational aspirations

Next, I looked at the post-school aspirations of students. Over four years, the Aspirations Longitudinal Study tracked the educational aspirations of four separate cohorts of students. In 2012, students were in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9; they ended the study in Years 6, 8, 10 and 12.

Rather than follow one cohort of students longitudinally over ten years (for example, from Year 3 through to Year 12), this design allowed us to follow multiple cohorts over a shorter period of time, while providing data for the full trajectory of the whole population of interest (students in Years 3-12). As part of an online survey completed during class time, the students were asked to identify the highest level of education they planned to complete.

From as early as Year 3, I found that prospective first-in-family students were less likely to aspire to university. As the graph below shows, this trend continues throughout schooling. However, Year 3 also represented the time point where the overall proportion of students aspiring to university was most similar between prospective first-in-family (FiF) students and their peers.

These findings support the view for beginning careers education in primary school, through informal and holistic activities across all key learning areas, rather than leaving it until the later years of secondary school.

Aspiring to university: The importance of parents and carers

While first-in-family students who end up getting to university can be perceived as succeeding despite their family background rather than because of their family, my research also offers important insight into how aspirations for higher education are shaped and nurtured. Among the prospective first-in-family students who aspired to university, their parents/carers were often cited as a major source of inspiration, highlighting how they are drawn on as a key resource although they may not have had firsthand experience with this pathway themselves.

Concept of ‘habitus’ in my research

The concept of ‘familial habitus’ is helpful in explaining these findings.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu refers to habitus (ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions) as our set of deeply internalised, socialised dispositions toward the world. These dispositions are structured by our position in the world, which in turn, structures how we feel we are able to act in it.

Habitus is attached to an individual, but is also shaped by other collective elements, such as through the family, which is where a person mainly learns how to understand the social world around them and how to react to it.

While habitus is often used to explain how disadvantage is reproduced from generation to generation, it is also important to consider how innovation and change emerge from family contexts.

I identified three key ways in which the familial habitus shaped aspirations for higher education among prospective first-in-family students, as reported by the young people themselves:

  • The projected habitus, whereby parents/carers verbalised expectations for higher education, and the hope that this pathway would lead to a ‘better’ future;
  • The meritocratic habitus, whereby parents/carers focused on the importance of hard work and academic ability, particularly in the context of schooling;
  • The supportive habitus, whereby parents/carers accentuated their child’s own decision-making, providing more open-ended encouragement and support.

While the parents of first-in-family students might not possess the ‘right kinds’ of social and cultural capital valued in the field of higher education, they nurture aspirations in different kinds of ways.

Hopefully, the ‘doors of opportunity’ that higher education represents for these young people and their families will not be locked shut by the time they finish their schooling.


Dr Sally Patfield is a post-doctoral researcher with the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle. With an interest in equity research and practice, her doctoral thesis investigated school students who would be the first in their families to enter higher education. Sally has presented her doctoral research at both national and international conferences, and in 2016 was awarded the Australian Council of Deans of Education Postgraduate Student/Early Career Researcher Poster Award at the Australian Association for Research in Education annual conference. Sally is a trained primary school teacher, and also has postgraduate qualifications in museum studies and cultural heritage. She has worked in education contexts across schools, local government, federal government and the not-for-profit sector. Most recently, she has worked on a number of research projects for the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, particularly focusing on increasing access to higher education for under-represented groups, and teacher professional development in the area of aspirations and equity.

This research was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship. Sally would like to thank her supervisors, Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, Dr Leanne Fray, Dr Natasha Weaver, and Dr Adam Lloyd.

Sally will be presenting a paper on her research at the 2018 AARE Conference (in Sydney) on Wed 5 Dec, 1:00pm – 3:00pm NLSASR 344 Title: The role of familial habitus in shaping aspirations for higher education among prospective first-in-family students




First in family to attend university: latest Australian research findings

Over the past fifty years there has been a huge increase in enrolments in higher education in many countries, including Australia. Increases range between 15 to 50 per cent, and Australia is approaching the upper limits of that measure. This has resulted, in part, from a drive in countries such as the US, UK and Australia, to improve economic growth by encouraging students from backgrounds previously not attracted to university education, to gain a tertiary qualification.

The enrolment surge has raised many issues for universities as they deal with the influx of a new type of student. Having attracted these students into tertiary education, universities have a moral and ethical responsibility to identify and support them. It is unethical to invite students into university study for broad economic and corporate purposes without considering how participation affects the students involved.

In Australia, universities have particularly targeted students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. However there is now a stigma attached to this label, and it can lead to deficit approaches, where students are treated as being from problematic backgrounds, or needy communities, who are not likely to succeed without outside help.

In contrast, in the US there has been a focus on research around students who are first-in-family (FiF) to attend university. This category is more useful as far as education services and support goes, and students are more likely to be comfortable being identified as first in family to attend university. However this category of students does not appear in Australian policy.

Currently, FiF students are gaining increased attention from researchers and institutions around the world, including here in Australia. While some of these students may come from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, not all do. However, much of the research suggests that FiF students, if they do enrol, are more likely to struggle at university and to discontinue their studies.

Our research findings on first in family (FiF) to attend university in Australia

A group of colleagues and I conducted a study at a large regional university in NSW on first in family to attend university. Our findings would be useful for any university that is expanding its enrolment base, and should underpin future government policy-making in this area.

FiF are a diverse group with common aspirations

We discovered FiF students are a diverse group, in terms of age, life experience and expectations of university. However they share a common desire for a better life and hope that university will help them achieve this. Some are keen to gain financial freedom, and many older students are aiming to improve their careers. They all share an interest in the focus of their degree program.

Transitions are different but university is an alien place

The transition to and through university differs for every FiF student, but they share a need to overcome a sense of university as an alien place, and to develop a sense of belonging. This is especially true for those who were not high achievers in high school. Many struggle against the belief that ‘university is for really smart people’ and ‘not people like us’.

Most have to do paid work and study

Most FiF students have to undertake some level of paid work while they study. Students who have to relocate in order to study, and those with family commitments are affected most by finances.

There are costs for travel, books, printing, childcare and loss of income while undertaking professional experience placements.

Families can impact study

Family commitments can impact study in many ways. One student told us:

I am from a family of 11, so studying at home can be an issue most of the time. I don’t have many friends either, there isn’t much help around!

Dropping kids to school and driving to uni getting parking takes about an hour so if lecture begins before 10am then it has to be missed.

However family and friends are a major source of support for these students, even though those people may not understand what the student is going through.

Loss of social life, health and well being

FiF students also suffer from loss of social interactions and reduced health and wellbeing, especially during peak assessment times.

New friends

Making friends in their courses is also important. These students, in particular, need peers to discuss course content and assessment with.

Achievement gap

There remains an achievement gap for FiF students. Our study indicates that the achievement outcomes of FIF and non-FIF are similar in the first year of study, but that achievement decreases for FIF in subsequent years of study. Most support structures at universities are aimed at first year students.

Realistic expectations

FiF students generally have realistic expectations of university and work hard to achieve their goals. They do not take success for granted. They are aware of the changes made to their skills, lives and future opportunities because of their studies.

Overwhelmingly, FiF students find the struggle worth persevering. They cite benefits in terms of personal growth, social experiences and a better understanding of society, and feel this benefits other members of their families too. These students often pave the way for other family members. Many feel ‘lucky’ to have the opportunity to attend university, often underestimating the impact of their own hard work and determination.

Help from university staff is important

University staff and services (academic, medical and financial) can also be of help. One student said:

staff that smile and are always approachable. The resources available such as extended library hours and IT staff. The HUB. A psychologist. Meditation and relaxation classes. Utilising all the available resources in the first year from the learning support centre. A positive attitude. Helping others helps me. Persistence.

Despite the available support services, it can be difficult to navigate the landscape of university, especially for those struggling with family and/or health issues, or to understand language used by staff and requirements of enrolment and assessment. Time-poor students find it difficult to access services in addition to the demands of study and paid work.

More research and more support is needed

Although a number of universities, including the one where the current research was conducted, have a strong corporate commitment to attracting and retaining low SES and/or FiF students, the commitment is not always supported sufficiently to filter down in a practical way to the students involved. Many of these students do succeed, but all could be better supported.


A full report of the study can be found here

I would like to acknowledge the financial support for the study received from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.


Suzanne Macqueen1-1Suzanne Macqueen is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle teaching courses related to primary social studies curriculum, classroom management, literacy and professional preparation. She has a Master of Education (Research) on the topic of between-class achievement grouping for literacy and numeracy classes in primary schools. She is currently undertaking PhD research related to the impact of widening participation initiatives in teacher education. She is also involved in research projects studying equity in higher education and Global Education.

Suzanne would like to acknowledge the financial support for the study received from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.