Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Education/Higher Education PhD

First Advisor

Tara L. Parker

Second Advisor

Gerardo Blanco

Third Advisor

Frank B. Ashley, III


Despite gains in expanding the student pipeline to postsecondary education, first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students complete college at disproportionately lower rates and have limited access to the resources necessary to make informed decisions about higher education. Research has shown that FGLI students are less likely to apply to college after completing high school, and when they do, they often enroll in institutions that are less selective than they were academically qualified to attend. Moreover, although access to higher education has expanded, the increased concentration of students at community colleges has not led to increases in earned credentials.

This study used two parallel phenomenological inquiries to explore the college decision-making processes and first-year experiences of two groups of FGLI students pursuing a baccalaureate degree: students who completed a summer college-access program before entering a four-year institution, and students who attended a community college. Findings from the study revealed that FGLI students often sought the support of guidance counselors during the college choice process, but the degree to which community college and four-year college attendees accessed this resource varied. Additionally, four-year college attendees provided strong evidence of having the support of parents, siblings, or peers who helped influence their college enrollment decisions.

This study also examined the first-year experiences of FGLI students and found that community college enrollees spoke highly of their experience, felt more comfortable navigating higher education independently, and remained steadfast about their desire to pursue a bachelor’s degree; however they demonstrated less engagement with the college community and were uncertain about where they would be ultimately complete their studies. Participants who had completed a summer college-access program were more engaged on campus with administrators and peers, had a better understanding of the support resources available, and gained confidence in how to approach college-level work.