Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of Educational Administration and Foundations: Educational Administration

First Advisor

Dianne Gardner-Renn


The postsecondary completion gap – the differential between those who access postsecondary education and those who complete a postsecondary credential – is a complex crisis that permeates U.S. higher education. One postsecondary student segment that continues to lag behind other segments in terms of degree completion is first-generation students, or those who are the first in their immediate families to attend college. The current study explores first-generation students’ experiences of their postsecondary environment viewed through unique lenses shaped by external contexts and prior experiences. Through a qualitative investigation of the experiences and perceptions of first-generation students at a private, residentially-based institution, the study explores how external forces influence first generation students' experience of the case study institution; how first generation students interpret the functional aspects of the case study institution’s culture; and what these interpretations mean for the students’ desire and ability to navigate their collegiate environment. As a group, the first-generation participants describe pre-college dispositions, family contexts, and educational experiences that serve as critical precursors to postsecondary achievement. Upon matriculation at the case study institution, participants describe experiencing a sense of care through the value of community, a sense of inclusion through the value of individuality, and a sense of achievement through the value of challenge. Participants’ experiences of the case study institution’s culture facilitates adjusting to an unfamiliar environment, overcoming social and academic challenges, and discovering purpose in their collegiate endeavors. The study concludes with a discussion of the role that institutional culture plays in the success of all student populations and with implications for college and university leaders interested in leveraging institutional culture to support degree completion.


Imported from ProQuest Hayes_ilstu_0092E_10815.pdf


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