What makes a first-generation college student? Well, that depends on who’s doing the defining.

Yes, there’s the federal definition: a student is first-generation if neither parent has a bachelor’s degree.

Sounds simple enough. But it doesn’t account for those who had a highly educated parent who wasn’t involved in their lives, or those whose parent got a college degree in another country, with an academic system unlike ours, or those who have one degree-holding parent, but are being raised in a single-parent household.

Researchers argue that many students like these are still meaningfully less advantaged compared to students who have two parents with degrees. Despite the narrow federal definition, many believe these are students who need to be identified and given added resources and support both to get through the college application process and to thrive once they get on campus.

New research from Common App shows that expanding the definition of first-generation expands enrollment data, and thus can tell a different story about who is ready for college.

According to 2022 data from Common App, about 450,000 applicants that year met the federal definition, meaning that neither parent had a bachelor’s degree, including about 300,000 students whose parents had never attended any college. But if the definition is expanded to include applicants who had one parent with a bachelor’s degree, the population increases to more than 700,000. And, according to the report, changing that definition changes other things, too, such as college readiness, socioeconomic status and the number of colleges students apply to.

Brian Heseung Kim, director of data science, research and analytics at Common App, said there isn’t one right way to define first-generation students; the question should be, “What kind of disadvantage are we trying to measure?”

“It would be great if everyone could kind of align on one definition for first-generation, it’d be so wonderful if we had that clarity,” Kim said.  “But the reality is that different contexts kind of require different identification methods.”

Read the full article about first-generation students by Olivia Sanchez at The Hechinger Report .