First-Generation College Students Remain Far Behind Peers in College Readiness

While most first-generation college students plan to pursue a four-year degree and almost all expect to earn some postsecondary credential, they remain far behind their peers in meeting key college readiness benchmarks.

These findings appear in a new report, The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2015: First-Generation Students, released today by ACT and the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). For the past five years, the percentage of first-generation students meeting ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in at least three of the four core subject areas (English, math, reading and science), has remained between 18 percent and 19 percent.

More than half of first-generation students—52 percent—met none of the benchmarks, remaining unchanged since last year. First-generation students are defined as those whose parents did not receive any postsecondary education. In 2015, more than 350,000 first-generation high school graduates took the ACT® test.

“Declining rates of college readiness among first-generation students signal that more students will enroll in college lacking the necessary academic preparation to succeed,” said Jim Larimore, ACT chief officer for the advancement of underserved learners. “Until these students have more equal access to rigorous courses in high school, they will continue to fall behind.”

First-generation students who took the recommended high school courses to prepare for college were significantly more likely than their peers to meet each of the four readiness benchmarks, though their readiness levels are still lower across all subject areas, compared to national averages.

“Beyond academics, an added obstacle for many first-generation students is a lack of resources and direction to navigate the college-planning process,” said Maureen Hoyler, COE president. “These students don’t have the built-in benefit of college-educated parents to help them plan for college, and we need to both continue and expand the reach of college access programs, including TRIO and GEAR UP.”

Report findings include:

  • STEM interest: First-generation students with a declared interest in STEM majors or occupations performed better than their peers across all four readiness subject areas.
  • Science gains: Performance on the science benchmark has consistently been the lowest level of achievement for first-generation test takers—though over the past five years, the percentage meeting this benchmark has improved, from 12 percent to 18 percent
  • Declines in English, reading and math: In each of the core subject areas of English, reading and math, readiness declined significantly over the past five years for first-generation students. From 2011–15, the percentage meeting the reading benchmark fell from 32 percent to 25 percent; in math, it slid from 25 percent to 21 percent; and in English, it dropped from 46 percent to 41 percent.

As part of ongoing efforts to increase access and equity, ACT recently began offering free access to the new version of ACT Online Prep™—a web-based resource that helps students prepare to take the ACT test—to students from low-income families who register for a national ACT test date with a fee waiver.

The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015: First-Generation Students is available online at:

The national Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015 report is available here:

About this research

The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2015: First-Generation Students is the annual report from ACT and COE on the progress of U.S. high school graduates relative to college readiness. This year’s 0&chapter=3report shows that 59 percent of all students in the 2015 U.S. graduating class took the ACT test, up from 47 percent in 2010. The increased number of test takers over the past several years enhances the breadth and depth of the data pool, providing a more comprehensive picture of the current graduating class in the context of college readiness as well as offering a glimpse at the emerging educational pipeline. During ACT registration, students are asked to provide information about family income, high school courses taken and postsecondary aspirations.

About the Council for Opportunity in Education

The Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) is a nonprofit organization, established in 1981, dedicated to furthering the expansion of college opportunities for low-income, first-generation students, veterans and students with disabilities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Palau, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Its membership includes more than 1,000 colleges and agencies. Through its numerous membership services, the Council works in conjunction with colleges, universities and agencies that host TRIO programs to specifically help low-income students enter college and graduate. Each year, 790,000 low-income students and students with disabilities receive college access and retention services through our member colleges and agencies.