Why social media matters for first-generation high school students’ college aspirations

First-generation students are more likely to be low-income and have less parental support, but social media enables them to tap into an extended network that can provide more resources

First-generation students are more likely to be low-income and have less parental support, but social media enables them to tap into an extended network that can provide more resources

My colleagues and I have just published a paper in Computers and Education [download paper here] about how social media helps first-generation high school students in terms of increasing their college application efficacy (confidence about their knowledge about college application processes) and their expectations of success in college. (Social media was not so beneficial for those whose parents had graduated from college).

Thanks to support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a lot of coordination with Muskegon Opportunity (a non-profit trying to help high school students go to college) we were able to survey 504 high school students in Muskegon county, which is located on the western side of Michigan, about their college aspirations and use of social media. Muskegon was a unique place to do this kind of study because according to 2010 US census data, only 16.5% of adults had a bachelor’s degree or higher and about half of the families are at or below 130% of the national poverty level, which enables students to qualify for free lunch at school (this is a federal program).

First-generation students (as defined in prior literature- we did not come up with this criteria) are students whose parents did not graduate from college. So if one parent attended college but dropped out, the child would still be considered first-generation. In many cases, first-generation students are also in low-income families, so they are at a disadvantage in terms of both financial and social capital.  Social capital is the idea of having access to people who are able to provide resources such as information and social support among others. Many many studies have shown how social capital is a positive indicator of academic success, including grades in school, going to college, and staying in college, etc. Of the students we sampled, about half of them were first-generation.

What we were interested in was how social media factors into students’ college aspirations. Social media enables one to connect with anyone, anywhere, such that one’s network can include people that may be able to provide the resources that immediate family is not able to provide. Moreover, many previous studies have found that social media usage is associated with social capital.

Long story short, we found that although  race, socio-economic status, and parental education were shown in prior research to be factors associated with post-secondary educational aspirations and achievement, even when such factors are taken into consideration, other social capital factors are important components of the college access puzzle. Parents, close friends, and the broader, extended social network made accessible via social media all play different roles in relation to students’ college aspirations. We saw that the type of support students need to gain knowledge about the process (i.e., knowing how to apply for college) were different from those needed to have confidence that they will succeed in the long run (i.e., be able to successfully attend and graduate from college).

College application efficacy

For first-generation students, having sibilings who went to or currently attend college and their ability to actively get information from social media increased their confidence regarding their knowledge of college application processes.

For non first-generations, however, social media did not contribute at all. Rather, peer norms-how important their close friends think doing well in school is- was an indicator of their confidence regarding knowledge of the college application process.

Expectations of college success

In terms of expectations of succeeding in college, the patterns were again different between first-generations and non first-generations. For first-generations, peer norms about education, self-esteem, and social media connections that could potentially provide resources such as information or advice (e.g., knowing someone on Facebook who goes to college) were positive indicators. For non first-generations, peer norms and self-esteem were also predictors, but social media did not play any role. Rather, emotional support from close friends was a positively related to their expectations of success in college.


We are currently doing follow-up interview analyses to look into the nuances of how social media helps first-generation students, but from a theoretical perspective, we believe that social media is able to expand one’s network and tap into resources from beyond one’s immediate network.

First-generation students who took our survey significantly lacked parental support compared to non first-generation students in multiple ways: parents of these students were less involved with the community, less involved with teachers and other parents, and provided less instrumental and emotional support. This parental support was general and not college-specific. This could explain why social media played such a strong role for first-generation students; in other words, the extended network was compensating for the lack of parental support.

In conclusion, I think this study ends on a positive note. Our findings suggest that even if you are disadvantaged in terms of financial resources or parental support, you have the opportunity to create your own resources. This is heartening from a student’s perspective because things like family income, parental education, and parental support are factors that they have very little control over. Although cultivating social capital is not an easy thing, first-generation students at least have the social media tools that can give them a little more empowerment in terms of seeking out and maintaining a wider range of people on social media for purposes of sharing/seeking information about the college process and having people who can serve as positive role models that will give them the confidence that they, too, will be successful.

PS. I will be presenting this research at the International Communication Association conference in London in June.

PPS. Much thanks to co-authors Nicole Ellison, Laeeq Khan, Ryan Fewins-Bliss, and Rebecca Gray


Wohn, D. Y., Ellison, N. B., Khan, M. L., Fewins-Bliss, R., & Gray, R. (2013). The role of social media in shaping first-generation high school students’ college aspirations: A social capital lens. Computers and Education, 63, 424-436


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