Mission critical : a qualitative study on improving graduation success for first-generation, Black students at public universities.


The United States is the wealthiest nation on the planet yet thirty-seven million live in abject poverty (International Monetary Fund, 2022). The Black community, which represents 8.5 million of this population, is experiencing a perpetual cycle of poverty and the lowest reported family income compared to other racial or ethnic groups (Caliendo, 2021; Creamer et al., 2022). These inequities perpetuate long-reaching problems in society including limiting the workforce, expanding wealth gaps, growing public health concerns, and even the criminal justice system (Chetty et al., 2020; Peterson & Mann, 2020). To break the cycle of poverty and prevent secondary societal ramifications, education is key (Allen et al., 2018; de Brey et al., 2019). While universities successfully attracted first-generation Black students, graduation rates for this group are the lowest of all student populations (Annalakshmi & Venkatesan, 2018). One factor, the hidden curriculum, which includes all unwritten rules, policies, and procedures of academic institutions (Pratt et al., 2019) creates and perpetuates social inequities, especially for Black students (Orón Semper & Blasco, 2018).

This qualitative single case study with embedded units gave voice to the first-generation, Black students at a public university. Through focus groups and interviews, participants offered first-hand experiences of navigating hidden curricula. Student observations and record reviews offered additional context to further understand this complex problem. Through qualitative analysis of the data, themes emerged illuminating three findings impacting first-generation, Black student graduation rates.

The first finding is that the students did not feel understood by university faculty or staff, therefore they did not feel like they belonged. Next, the students expressed a need for support systems throughout their post-secondary education journey. Finally, campus culture must align with the needs of the students to prevent cultural dissonance. These findings should provoke interest in university policymakers responsible for funding and managing campus culture as well as those responsible for student recruiting and retention. As future inbound students shift toward first-generation, minority students, college policymakers must consider changes to the improve graduation rates of first-generation, Black students.